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DVD Review: Hannibal Rising

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By Iloz Zoc 

Please allow me to introduce myself
I'm a man of wealth and taste…
If you meet me, have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I'll lay your soul to waste…
The Rolling Stones

How does one give sympathy to the devil? That's the challenge Thomas Harris faced when writing his background story on the birth of one of the most riveting fictional human monsters, Hannibal Lecter.

Of course, the first question to ask is why do it? Giving tea and sympathy to a consummately evil character that sends shivers down your spine with just that look and just that smile is quite an accomplishment. Why ruin it? When the Borg where humanized in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the franchise lost a perfectly frightening bunch of monsters with no redeeming social values, and future stories lacked the visceral fear of being assimilated without remorse, of losing all that you hold dear in the wink of an eye and there was nothing you could do about it. Bad call there.

Thomas Harris made a bad call here, too. Not only does he try to explain why Hannibal is a cannibal, but he chooses to do it prosaically. His characters speak with flowery-mouth intensity appropriate for literature, not screen dialog. And for a laconic character that's short on words but long on cuisine, that's not a good thing; a known unknown evil is more worrisome and scary than a known known evil, definitely.

Hannibal01Director Peter Webber also makes a bad call by ponderously posing every scene with self-conscious importance. This slows the pacing throughout the movie, and scenes of visceral intensity, where Hannibal begins to succumb to his guilt and insanity, are held back because of it. And don't get me started on those James A. Michener-styled background tableaux. With near-risible martial arts aunt, offerings to ancestral samurai, and a poorly thought through revelatory exposition that is capped by Hannibal crying "You ate my sister!" I imagine lots of popcorn bounced off theater screens everywhere as audiences chuckled and shifted uneasily in their seats — for all the wrong reasons.

Adding to this undercooked cinematic souffle, Gaspard Ulliel postures a lot, as if doing a Vogue layout for Hannibal Lecter fashions. His ominous leering and malicious grinning doesn't evoke any of the uncanny calmness of Anthony Hopkins later, more menacing portrayal. It appears the look of the film was far more important than the substance.

Great care is taken to preserve that look, and visually, the film is beautiful when it should be ugly. Hannibal's growing insanity, growing thirst for revenge looks so beautiful, but it has no life of its own, no building tension buzzes around him.

It's Word War II, and young Hannibal, and his younger sister, are fleeing the Nazis. Their parents thought they had a safe haven in the woods, but that turns out to be a magnet for the war's atrocities. Before they're settled in, tragedy strikes and both his parents are killed. He and his sister must now face the long, cold winter alone in a hostile environment.

More of the war's chaos walks into their home in the form of mercenaries looking for food and a warm place to stay. Food. Where to find it? Starvation sets in, and more and more those hungry eyes stray toward the children. Eventually the hunger is too much, and it's now a quick cheek pinch here, an arm tug there to find which, boy or girl, has more meat on their bones. Hannibal's sister loses. He's helpless as she's brought outside to be slaughtered.

Hannibal0It's now eight years later. Hannibal has lost everything, including his dignity, as his home is converted into an orphanage for bully-boys that grow tired of his nightly screams while he dreams. Soon he's off to Paris, to look up his aunt (Gong Li). She's Lady Murasaki Shikibu, who prays to her ancestor's samurai-suited shrine, and teaches Hannibal the fine art of hitting each other with a stick while wearing copious padding. Hannibal, of course, takes a fancy to her long and sharp katana, and enjoys rubbing it with clove oil to keep it sparkling.

An encounter with a fat butcher at the local market sets him off down the non-vegetarian road of self-destruction. He takes time away from his medical school training to return to his crumbling home to retrieve the dog tags of the vile men that ruined his life and ate his little sister. He begins tracking them down one by one, dispensing his unique brand of justice; and cooking up a tasty treat of cheeks and mushrooms — Emeril Lagasse take note!

As the body count piles up, along with Hannibal's growing culinary prowess, Inspector Popil is hot on his trail. With insightful observations like "It's vanilla. He reacts to nothing. It's monstrous," when viewing Hannibal's polygraph test, and "What is he now? There’s not a word for it yet. For lack of a better word, we’ll call him a monster," I had no doubt the inspector would not get his man.

Hannibal03Hannibal eventually tracks down the men who ate his little sister, Mischa. Either beheading them, or drowning them, or munching on them, there's little revulsion generated by the whole mess. There is no tension, no suspense, and amazingly, no hint of that complex web of genius and madness shown in the adult Hannibal.

In the climactic confrontation between the man who led the others in their hunger-driven madness to consume Hannibal's little sister, and the revenge-consumed Hannibal himself, the resolution is oddly passionless. Even when we find out why Hannibal is guilt-ridden also, the revelation is drowned in the good-looking but empathy-lacking scene. His cry of "you ate my sister," didn't help that scene much either.

Even the extra featurettes on the DVD are glossy-nice to look at, but lack real bite. For the hardcore horror fan, they offer no insight and no interesting background information. They're brochure-quality promotion pieces, not in-depth discussions of the film.

Hannibal Rising is like one of those plastic fake food displays that look so mouth-watering good. Just don't shove one of them in your mouth expecting a great taste and texture experience, and don't watch Hannibal Rising expecting a shuddering, emotive experience either. Plastic is just plastic.

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