February 12, 2007

Hannibal Rising

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As one might expect, much of Hannibal Rising is dedicated to the depiction of protracted, brutal and outlandish killings. But the film’s worst murder is committed by Thomas Harris, author of the Lecter novels and the screenwriter of this total disaster. In just under two hours, Harris manages to utterly butcher the brilliant villain we know from Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and Red Dragon. In contrast with these smart psychological thrillers, what we get in Rising is a sort of super hero origins story, complete with a contrived revenge plot and obligatory martial arts training.

Hannibal Rising begins during WWII, with a young Lecter enjoying an idyllic childhood in the Lithuanian countryside. Alas, the arrival of Nazi soldiers forces the affluent Lecter family to abandon their castle and hide out in a remote cabin. The war quickly catches up with them, however, and Lecter’s parents are killed in an absurd military confrontation that would have made Jerry Bruckheimer proud. Lecter and his sister Mischa are the only survivors, left alone to fend for themselves against the cold and packs of ravenous wolves. As if things couldn’t get any worse, the children are discovered by a band of Russian looters on the run from the military. These rogues decide to settle in for the winter, but they quickly run out of food. Before long, the children are looking pretty tasty, and we learn how Hannibal developed his anthropophagous appetite.

Eight years later, a haunted and mute Lecter (played by Gaspard Ulliel, from A Very Long Engagement) is stuck in a Russian orphanage, improbably located in his family’s old castle. He escapes, slips into West Germany and flees to France in search of his Japanese aunt Lady Murasaki, played by the incredible Gong Li (Miami Vice). I’m not sure how they talked Li into this role, but her portrayal of Lecter’s aunt/lover/accomplice is a tremendous waste of talent. Anyway, his aunt shows Lecter some moves with a samurai sword, and it isn’t long until the young vigilante is cruising around Europe with motorcycle and katana, messily torturing, interrogating and killing the men that ate his sister. Yes, Lecter literally becomes a masked avenger. Predictably, the objects of his vengeance have all become involved in organized crime, further justifying Lecter’s bloody attacks.

Now, the serial killer-as-protagonist plot is pretty detestable (unless used as political commentary, as in Natural Born Killers), but what bothered me the most about this film was its glamorization of torture. Maybe it’s the cultural result of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, but more and more films seem to be coming out that advertise themselves as torture flicks: the Saw franchise, Hostel, Wolf Creek, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes, Turistas… the list goes on and on. Whereas older horror films advertised exciting chases, these movies seem to bill themselves on the basis that people will be caught, restrained, tortured and then killed. When did this become entertainment? Films like Hannibal Rising are supposed to examine the way that trauma can transform individuals into monsters. Let us not forget that entire cultures can undergo the same ugly metamorphosis.

At the climax of Hannibal Rising, the young Lecter confesses his love to his aunt, Lady Murasaki. Disgusted by his brutal behavior, she responds coldly: “What is there left of you to love?” Lecter takes this solemnly, and then goes back to eating some dude’s face. An audience member can identify with Murasaki. Like most people, I was thrilled by the complex, sophisticated creature played by Anthony Hopkins. After this mess, though, there is very little of the character left to love.