March 26, 2009

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Hannibal Rising (R)
A young Hannibal Lecter learns his murderous ways in Hannibal Rising, a movie that explains why, at the Lecter house, you should never eat the soup.

Why?

Because there's little girl in it! Little girl and noodle, I think.

It's an old recipe Lecter learned in the woods of Lithuania during World War II. His parents took young Hannibal (Aaron Thomas) and his younger sister Mischa (Helena Lia Tachovska) from Castle Lecter (I swear; the words appeared right there in all their ridiculous glory) to the Lecter family hunting lodge. There, Nazis or maybe Russians killed Hannibal's parents. (Does it really matter? No.) Then a group of scavenging Lithuanians show up and commandeer the lodge, tying the children up and keeping them around as possible negotiating tools should they be found looting. But the pantries at the Lector Lodge are bare and the men are hungry. They eye both children like a cartoon wolf looking at a cow and seeing steak but, since little Mischa has a cough and seems on her way out anyway, they decide to kill her and cook her in soup.

Hannibal, understandably, takes this badly.

Years later, older Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) is the mute student at a Soviet boys' school run, of all depressing places, out of Castle Lecter. The other boys despise Lecter for his attitude (he thinks he's better than them and proves that, if nothing else, he's better at stabbing a guy in the hand with a fork than them) and for his habit of screaming in the middle of the night.

Eventually, Lecter escapes (along with a pile of his mother's old letters) and heads to France, where he thinks he has some kind of relatives. It turns out that he had an uncle but he's dead now leaving Lecter with only a not-related-by-blood aunt, Lady Murasaki Shikibu (Gong Li). She is living more-or-less alone on a French estate and takes in young Lecter, teaching him about art and gourmet cooking and sword-fighting and praying to a creepy-looking set of Japanese armor featuring a muzzle. (I get that it's a representation of her warrior ancestor, but if your ancestors look like cannibalistic pig men maybe you don't put them on display in the living room.) Lecter takes like a duck to water (or, more accurately, like a butcher to tartare) to this kind of schoolin' and eventually decides to go to Paris to study medicine. But first he avenges a racial slur tossed at his aunt by severing the head of the slurrer. This gets Lecter the attention of Inspector Popil (Dominic West), a war crimes investigator who sees in Lecter the monsterous killing machine he will become.

Sees it but doesn't try all that hard to arrest it.

Lecter studies medicine, taking time out to return to Lithuania to search for the men who killed his sister. He gets one of them there (taking the man's death to find out if the cheeks of any animal are always the tastiest part, as a chef once told him) and then returns to France for more schooling and to track down the other men who, conveniently, have settled in France and westward post-war.

Popil and Lecter's aunt are both horrified and, by default, consenting of Lecter's actions. Perhaps this is because they don't know how to stop such an amoral psychopath or perhaps this is because even the fictional characters are bored with the story. Li and West are grownup actors who make an effort but their roles aren't fleshed out enough to make them compelling on their own or even as relevant foils to Lecter. Ulliel, when in killing mode, attempts to go for the hissing snobbery and flamboyant evil of Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs but only manages to look clownish. When not killing, he's quiet and dour and looks slightly pained — Lecter's overall a bit like somebody suffering from a head cold.

Yes, Hannibal Rising is icky in parts, but it isn't icky in any particularly original way nor is it gory enough to satisfying those just looking for a good blood bath. For all the psychological hooey it throws around, the movie isn't cerebrally terrifying either. It has none of the chilly suspense or the what-you-don't-know-can-kill-you sense of fear that made Silence of the Lambs enjoyably scary. The scariness of Hopkins' Lecter in that movie was the way he manipulated everyone — criminals, victims, law-enforcement. He might actually be smarter; there might actually be no way out.

Hannibal Rising, however, generates this sense of panic only when you look at your watch, disinterested already, and realize that you've still got an hour and a half to go. C-

Rated R for strong grisly violent content (like the sister-eating) and some language/sexual references. Directed by Peter Webber and written by Thomas Harris, Hannibal Rising is an hour and 57 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by The Weinstein Company