Well, it’s the first Hannibal movie, because it starts with him as a child, and it’s chronologically the last one released. Unless #BryanFuller makes a movie, instead of Season 4 of the TV show. Or Sir Anthony Hopkins comes back as an octogenarian Hannibal, with his wife (Clarice – Jodie Foster or Julianne Moore would both be fine) running the meat business. Martha De Laurentiis @neoprod – I have a script treatment ready!
This is the Hannibal film everyone loves to hate. We are treated to a sweet young Hannibal (Aaran Thomas) having to watch his beloved little sister Mischa being eaten by Nazi collaborators and deserters, and then discovering that he himself unwittingly joined the feast.
From this, we deduce, came his hunger for human flesh. Like the desperate young crash survivors carving meat from the corpses of their dead teammates in Alive, his subsequent actions may not be acceptable, but become at least partially understandable. Psychopathy founded in trauma.
Hannibal of course would have hated this – remember that he told Clarice in Silence of the Lambs
“You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviourism… Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I’m evil?”
Or as the 21st century Hannibal said:
when it comes to nature versus nurture I choose neither. We are built from a DNA blueprint and born into a world of scenario and circumstance we don’t control.
There are two streams of thought on the subject of evil: one, from Rousseau to Arendt, is adamant that morality requires an explanation for evil, while an alternative stream from Voltaire to Jean Améry, insists that it be left unaccountable. Clarice Starling and Dino De Laurentiis would seem to favour the side of Rousseau, while Harris and Hannibal, and many critics of the film, seem more aligned with Voltaire. Harris apparently faced the awful choice of accepting large sums of money to divulge the origin story, or else see it betrayed by another writer.
The opening image of a film, they tell you in film studies, sets the mood and the theme. This one opens with a spider-web.
People are afraid of spiders, for reasons that I have never quite understood. Beware, this one seems to be saying, and we hear childish Hannibal in the background, telling Mischa to run and hide! But it’s just a game. Until the Nazis appear, with their Hiwis, or Lithuanian collaborators, led by the irredeemably despicable Grutas (Rhys Ifans), bandits who are all too willing to assist the SS, for their own profit.
Hannibal’s parents are killed, and the Hiwis take over the lodge, desperate for food, and finding none.
Except for the children.
We do not witness the cannibal acts then, but in nightmare flashbacks eight years later. Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) is now a teenager, still mute from PTSD, in an orphanage which uses the former Lecter Castle. He is accused of not honouring “the human pecking order”
Yes, he hates discourtesy. He won’t swallow bullying. Yet.
He escapes the orphanage, crosses Lithuania, Poland, East Germany (hops over the Wall, easy as anything) and arrives in his uncle’s home in Paris. Uncle is dead, and he moves in with his beautiful young Japanese aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li, who is Chinese, but, ah well). Will there be romance as she helps him recover his voice?
She teaches him about the Samurai code, in front of the armour of her ancestors, strangely evocative of a later Hannibal.
She teaches him the art of fighting. And the treatment of enemies.
A butcher in the marketplace insults Murasaki, and Hannibal is enraged. The butcher (a Nazi collaborator) becomes Hannibal’s first kill, and then his first human meat, after the chef explains the delights of eating cheeks.
Hannibal presents Murasaki with the butcher’s head. When she objects that he did not need to do that for her, he replies
Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to Hannibal. Ah, so young, and already eating the rude. And already seeing cannibalism everywhere – looking at a fresco of Abraham on the mount, about to sacrifice his son, he asks
So much about older Hannibal is revealed – the police inspector (Dominic West from The Wire) gives him a lie detector test – but he responds to nothing.
Hannibal is also brilliant – the youngest student ever admitted into medical school. But he is still obsessed with Mischa and the men who took her from him. He can draw their faces from memory, but cannot remember their names. A dose of sodium thiopental, truth serum, with the Goldberg Variations (another Silence of the Lambs reference) playing in the background, gives him his mental break. Or maybe breaks something in him, depending on your propensity for behaviourism. He remembers that there was a bag of dog-tags left in the lodge, returns to the Soviet Union (no problem crossing the Iron Curtain for Hannibal apparently) and finds all the names. And Mischa’s teddy bear, and her bones. And one of the Hiwis, whom he dispatches, much as Will later dreams of dispatching Hannibal.
He licks the blood off his glove, with some gusto, and prepares the cheeks for a fresh-air feast.
Hannibal spends the rest of the movie tracking down the rest of the gang, who are now into respectable industries like human trafficking and drowning ortolans for lunch.
Along the way, there are interesting discussions of our topic – cannibalism. One of the gang tell Hannibal, as he is about to be killed:
Survival cannibalism. Common in the days of sail, and in various famines. But the Inspector knows what happened, back in the USSR.
Cannibalism happened on the Eastern Front, says the Inspector. This is not news to Hannibal. He is determined to find the gang leader, Grutas. The Inspector tells him (us) what a lovely guy Grutas is. He sawed off the head of the Rabbi at Kaunas.
He walked away from his war crime trial because a witness got acid poured down her throat. So really, whatever Hannibal does, well, it’s OK with us. But the Inspector has decided Hannibal is insane.
Murasaki tries to persuade him to give the gang up to the police. She can be quite persuasive.
But Hannibal cannot make that promise. He has already promised Mischa – revenge.
At his first encounter with the villain, Grutas, he has an interesting outlook on cannibalism too.
There you have it. Cannibalism is about love.
Then the big reveal. Lady Murasaki is a captured by Grutas, Hannibal comes to the rescue and has Grutas at his mercy. Mercy is not a word Hannibal uses much, and when Murasaki asks him to stop, he says
So did you. You ate her too. So why don’t you kill yourself? Pot Watcher fed her to you in a broth. You have to kill everyone who knows it, don’t you? You ate her, half conscious…
Hannibal snaps, and carves M for Mischa on Grutas’ chest.
Murasaki gives up, despite Hannibal’s protestations of love.
Instead of following her, Hannibal stops for a quick snack on Grutas’ cheeks.
Trivia time: Hannibal is not only a brilliant doctor, musician and cook, but he is also apparently ambidextrous. Check him out writing left-handed in this movie, whereas he is right-handed in all the others, and in the TV series.
The film got a measly 16% on Rotten Tomatoes. Most criticism centres on the fact that it is not particularly scary, but that rather misses the point, IMHO. The question the film asks is: how do people overcome the social conditioning of their childhoods to become what they are – killers, cannibals, rapists, politicians? It may be genetic, as Hannibal tells Clarice: “nothing happened. I happened”. Or maybe the childhood itself offers a clue to how, as Clarice asked “you got that way”. The film offers a view of the latter – a gentle, loving little boy with, clearly, a brilliant mind, but so traumatised that he can think of nothing but revenge. His target – rude people and bullies. No one minds seeing them get their comeuppance. But you take a bite out of their cheeks, and suddenly everyone is convinced you’re a monster.
But here’s why I like this film:
- The book and the screenplay are both written by the brilliant Thomas Harris, who of course created Hannibal. This is the only film in the series for which Harris wrote the screenplay
- The Director is Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring)
- There are two Hannibals in this movie (a 100% increase on all the other movies)! One at age eight, and the other a young man
- It only takes Hannibal’s story up to his arrival in North America, leaving a nice narrative gap between that and his eventual capture and captivity by Will Graham in Red Dragon, which was perfectly filled by Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal (even if time shifted by a few decades)
- It shows the humanity of Hannibal, his devotion to his sister, and his determination to hunt down her killers. If you don’t want your Hannibal to show humanity, then this can be a problem
- It was a prequel. Every great character gets a prequel – Darth Vader, Indiana Jones, Vito Corleone, Mr Spock, Zorro, Batman – even Jesus has scored a few. Why not Hannibal?