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Hannibal (DVD, 2007, 2-Disc Set, Collector's Edition; Steelbook)
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the end of the Hannibal Lecter trilogy: Ridley Scott's visually brave Hannibal
Feb 9, 2001 (Updated Feb 10, 2001)
Review by mangiotto
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:visually stunning and courageous
Cons:thematically weak and cowardly
The Bottom Line: beautiful and visually brave - a grotesque funhouse ride that ends, unfortunately, with an appeal for wider acceptance.
Ridley Scott’s nailed it.
Recommend this product?
He’s recreated the dark fugue state of Thomas Harris’ grimoire Hannibal, and done so with the appropriate level of grotesquerie. It’s a cinematic geek tent – slide that nine bucks over to the querulous carbuncular ticket vender, and step right up to view the glistening secrets of the underside of the human experience. There’s the man with no face, the flesh of man eating ghoul, a menagerie of feral pigs, and, perhaps most unusual in American film, the director with the cast iron onions.
I’ve made it a matter of public knowledge that I’m a great admirer of the Thomas Harris tome, going so far as to suggest that it functions as a reaction to the popular sentiment that buoyed the prettified Jonathan Demme version of Silence of the Lambs to critical and widespread herd approval. If the people demand a sequel that involves our lovable cannibal free to exercise his wits and appetites without the benefit of incarceration or hockey-mask restraint – there you have it. Just be careful what you ask for.
The main problem with the film, and the one that makes it something less than the five stars I was inclined to give it, is the conclusion that (you’re probably curious to know), diverges from the novel in a rather significant way. Does that mean that there weren’t people bailing out and gagging discretely behind a chagrined cough at the grisly denouement? No – people were, indeed, bailing out and gagging – the problem with the ending isn’t that it’s too cowardly to show what a genius cannibal might do out of vengeance, it is that it robs the film of any sort of thematic depth. The most nettling part of that equivocation is that for the entire running time of the film save for the last few minutes, Hannibal appears for all the world to be going in the right direction.
I am inclined to believe that screenwriters David Mamet & Steven Zallian (Schindler’s List), along with Scott, were all of a mind to recreate the surreal and Byzantine romance that Harris crafted in his novel – there are simply too many references to “obsession” and “love letters” for it not to have crossed their collective mind - but were vetoed by a leery studio or fickle test audiences. The finale is one that feels manufactured and obsequious - a thing made ironic by the simple fact that Hannibal is unlikely to gain a wide acceptance no matter how desperately it tries to win over its audience in the last minutes.
When the film leers at the gore (and Hannibal is the goriest mainstream film since The Cell), but shies away from the aberrant psychology that informs its protagonists, it becomes a freak show without much recognition of humanity. I would suggest that a freak show without sympathy is just a parade of deformity without the recognition that the freak could be you.
The appeal of Harris' written work (and Manhunter), is that you are made to believe that with a little fate the hunter could easily become the killer. Harris all but hits you over the head with that possibility in his novel Hannibal, thus garnering, I believe, the bulk of its critical discomfort and derision. What the conclusion of Ridley Scott's Hannibal does is, after two hours of disturbing us, try to console us - it feels for all the world like a betrayal of its audience and of the characters to that point - I didn't buy it - I'd wager that you won't either.
It is the recognition of universality in this Grand Guignol opera of the absurd that is the very element of Harris’ novel that could not have been altered without damaging the thematic structure of the piece. For all of its courage, Hannibal chickens out when it comes to love, obsession, and personal shadows and that, gentle reader, is an eloquent summary of how Hollywood consistently fails its audience: all circus, no bread.
the low down
Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore: Magnolia) is on the hook for a botched raid, dangled there by a reptilian member of the Department of Justice, Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta: Something Wild). Meanwhile, disfigured Lecter victim Mason Verger (Gary Oldman: Prick Up Your Ears), has hatched an evil plan to feed his tormenter to specially-bred carnivorous boars. Seeing Starling’s fall as an opportunity, billionaire Verger pulls a few strings and gets Starling back on the cold trail of Lecter (Anthony Hopkins reprising his Oscar-winning role) who has, we discover, found his way to Florence, Italy as the curator of a museum library.
Ridley Scott can be a brilliant visual stylist (Blade Runner, The Duellists, Alien, Gladiator), he can also be a ploddingly self-obsessed visual expectorator (G.I. Jane, 1492, White Squall, Legend, Black Rain). With Hannibal Scott displays a great deal of maturity. He creates a deep reality in the movie that is all muted colors and mist-shrouded vistas in the United States, and all imposing architecture and Tennysonian acedia in beautiful Florence.
Scott has a talent for the breathtaking landscape and the equally expansive interior – a talent, too, for making the scope of both, claustrophobic and oppressive. The marriage between Scott and Harris’ nightmarish meditation on liebstod is reflected not only in every single glowering frame of the film, but in a soundtrack by Hans Zimmer that strikes just the right chord between minimal and dramatic.
It is no accident that opera plays a vital role in the film as it is opera that the film most represents: expansively gestured, broadly painted, and, bursting at the seams with passion if not with a great deal of credibility.
Hannibal is grisly and tense – although much more is suggested than actually shown in the body of the film, I was frankly amazed at how much is possible in movies nowadays without garnering an NC-17 rating. Under Ridley Scott’s lush brush the images are all the more lurid and nauseating. It’s the equivalent of a Goya – a garish slice of cinema art that functions as a textbook on how to use all aspects of an atmosphere to charge the emotional impact of violence and cruelty.
Anthony Hopkins is better in Hannibal than he was in Silence of the Lambs. He is dangerous and sharp, discarding the lugubrious reptilian slow blink in favor of the aspect of a shark. Though his fervor in this film betrays the assertion in Lambs that his heart rate never exceeded 85 beats per minute as he was eating a nurse’s face (an event that we witness in Hannibal through a grainy surveillance video), it’s a great decision to showcase the darker side of the genius psychiatrist. This is not to say that Hopkins neglects the good doctor’s ironic wit. For all of the memorable lines in the film, I’m making the prediction that the catch line from Hannibal will be Hopkin’s dry improvised “okee dokee.”
Julianne Moore, an actress that I frankly despise, is magnificent. Her Starling is the logical product of ten long years on the FBI during which she has won a place in the Guinness Book for the most people shot in the line of duty. Bitter and angry with a streak of cynicism and hardened weariness, Moore’s Starling is a tough and independent woman that is free from the thrall and the confusion of the Foster characterization. It’s the difference between Sigourney Weaver’s performances from the first Alien film (another Ridley Scott), to the second – and I not only found the change to be a realistic one, I found it to be a good one.
Gary Oldman adds another cackling villain to his growing rogue’s gallery of cackling villains. He is unrecognizable as a man that has, years previous, cut off his face and fed it to his dogs at the urging of Lecter. I was reminded of times of Jim Carrey’s fireman character post-incineration on the old In Living Color variety show – Verger is extremely difficult to look at. Ridley Scott’s fascination with Verger’s deformity, exhibited in long and loving close-ups of the scarred, lidless ruin, is an early clue that if you have a quick gorge or a weak stomach, you’ll do well to seek out The Wedding Planner. . . scratch that.
Giancarlo Gianinni (A Walk in the Clouds) is simply magnificent as the financially strapped Italian detective Rinaldi Pazzi. The scenes set in Florence as Pazzi attempts to apprehend Lecter are a return to the brilliance of Michael Mann’s Manhunter in its examination of the personal demons of law enforcement officials. Occupying the middle section of the film, the portions in Italy are ones that display the strongest thematic depth and character richness. It is a testament to Gianinni that with a minimum to work with script-wise, he is able to carry off a three-dimensional characterization.
Hannibal is a trip across the river Styx with no corresponding sip of Nepenthe at the other side. It is a hard, hard film that will strike some as terminally offensive and others as campy hilarity. There is a point at which excess joins those two disparate reactions.
Although I missed Harris’ touch explaining how a little mist spray helped keep Verger’s eyes moist, I realized that Hannibal is more interested in textures than science or plotting. Thus, what many call a weakness of the film (the weakness of linear narrative), is hardly the point. Ridley Scott is a visual stylist and Hannibal is one of the most courageous visual films that I have seen in a long, long time.
For me, though, the fatal flaw of this film, one that has recently just dropped the film another star in my mind (better wrap this up lest I end up not recommending it), is the elision of the love interest and the seeming cowing to the feminist predisposition to deify the Starling character. Ridley Scott is well known for his affection for strong heroines, but he fails (G. I. Jane) as often as he succeeds (Alien) - call Hannibal’s conclusion something of a push along the lines of Thelma & Louise: a movie that might have its heart in the right place, but ends up being mildly implausible and jarringly proselytizing.
In robbing the story of its charnel house fairy tale ending, complete with mad banquet and flight to luxury, Ridley Scott, et. al, have taken the disturbing out and replaced it with decadence and disgust. Amazingly, Ridley Scott’s decadence and disgust are good enough to save the film to a large degree despite its intellectual cowardice. It should come as no surprise, perhaps, that Zallian, the man that also marred Schindler's List with an unnecessarily populist ending (that was again not in the book), has lobotomized Hannibal with almost exactly the same deformity.
But in the end, it’s a splatter show, dear friend, and I would be a bad person not to warn you to stay away if you’re of the sensitive sort. But when, during a pivotal disembowelment, a cell phone shatters on the ground just prior to a bundle of intestines – I knew that I was watching a movie with its heart in the right place. Irony of ironies, two of the infernal machines went off during my screening of the film this afternoon with nary a soul to deal with their rudeness. The rude, I fear, are un-teachable.
Hannibal is a heavy oil painting in an ornate frame and, like a painting divorced from an unknown history, it can only be admired and inferred from, not educated by. It is a lovely looking picture that does not reward the venal with easy images and discrete editing – it is a terrible shame that there are no limits, it seems, to what can be shown in an American movie house in terms of violence, but strong restrictions on what can be shown of love, obsession, and the darkest crannies and desires of a person’s heart.
Hannibal is worth a look despite its ultimate cop-out, just don’t eat before you go.
*a note that Lecter makes his first appearance in the film in a pointillist pattern of pigeons during the opening credits. clever, non?
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