About a half hour into “Hannibal Rising,” a corpulent French butcher harasses the only Asian character (played by Gong Li) by inquiring as to which direction her vagina runs. In that very moment, the film crosses the line from “redeemably mediocre” to “unforgivably bad,” and not even some beautifully captured shots can prevent it from finishing off the decaying Hannibal Lecter franchise with a decided lack of luster.
The film has roughly three acts: It opens in the serene, wooded hills of WWII-era Lithuania, where eight-year-old Lord Hannibal and his toddler sister Mischa lovingly (almost too lovingly) play patty-cake and where Mischa is later eaten by Nazi soldiers who were — apparently — unable to find morally acceptable means of nutrition. Eights years later, teenaged Hannibal (played henceforth by French fry Gaspard Ulliel) flees a makeshift boarding school and seeks refuge with his sole surviving relative, his inexplicably Asian aunt Murasaki Shikibu (Li), who agrees to shelter (and lust after) Hannibal, mostly because of his resemblance to her late husband. She instructs him in the arts, letters and sciences, and then gets the incredibly bad idea of teaching him her ancestors’ ancient art of self-defense.
Later — as an medical school student working in a morgue that for some reason doubles as an interrogation room — Hannibal finds he is unable to forget his tumultuous youth and embarks on a bloody journey to avenge his sister’s death and, um, ingestion. With the help of more than one deus ex machina, Hannibal finds the soldiers, kills them, then eats their cheeks. The victors-turned-victims meet their fates in sundry ways, from being eye-poppingly strangled to drowning in a vat of embalming fluid.
The script, adapted by Thomas Harris from his own novel, shows no resemblance to better, earlier adaptations of his work. The first part of the film is largely composed of three words — “Hannibal,” “Mama” and “Mischa” — repeated over and over. Laughably nonsensical dialogue makes up the rest, like Inspector Popil’s insightful question to Lady Shikibu, “You lost everything, didn’t you, when the bomb fell on Hiroshima?” And then there’s this wonderful piece of repartee between Hannibal and the wolf-eyed leader of the Nazi pack: “What did I do to you?” “Besides eat my sister? Nothing.”
At least Ulliel makes for an adequately frightening (and frighteningly attractive) Hannibal Lecter. The peek-a-boo dimple/scar on his upper cheek serves as a constant reminder of Hannibal’s preferred dish, while his boyish physique adds to a charisma essential to the character. But Ulliel’s attempts to affect Anthony Hopkins’ sweet-talking venom evoke an awkward mix of nostalgia and discomfort.
The best that can be said of “Hannibal Rising” is that, in rare moments, it offers up some visually interesting shots. In particular, the scene in which young Hannibal crawls from the decimated cottage across a white, snow-covered plain, just as a line of Russian rescuers emerge from the dark forest, creates a sublime and emotionally harrowing series of images. Then there’s the clever use of the iconic, three-barred mask that Hannibal wears in the movie poster: Actually a piece of armor belonging in Lady Shikibu’s ancient collection, the mask plays with the audience’s recognition of the similarly-styled muzzle worn by Hannibal in “The Silence of the Lambs.”
But “The Silence of the Lambs,” in addition to cinematic bravado, had substance, and that’s the one thing “Hannibal Rising” tragically lacks. Incredibly stupid plot-points go so far beyond verisimilitude that, near the end, one half-expects to see young Lecter eating his own face. And why shouldn’t he, when the film’s creators don’t care one iota about history, science or even plain common sense?