Tale of the young cannibal neutralises his evil

2008-10-02 08:04

SO what was the world's most infamous cannibal like as a boy? Which parenting theory will he prove: that spoilt brats come to no good; or that adversity builds character?

It's inevitable that one wonders, as in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre, what makes a man a monster, and if things had worked out differently, would he have turned out the same.

Hannibal Lecter redefined the psycho-horror genre when he made his first screen appearance in Silence of the Lambs, as gruesome and stomach-turning a film one could ever wish to see (or not, as the case may be). It was also a role that made Anthony Hopkins's career. And apart from the gory appeal, all three of writer Thomas Harris's previous Hannibal stories have been superb thrillers.

Hannibal Rising takes the story back to his childhood. The first scenes are of an aristocratic idyll, set deep in the Lithuanian countryside in 1944, which promptly gets shattered by Nazi bombs. The Lecter family flees, but Hannibal (played by Gaspard Ulliel) and his sister fall into the hands of a scavenging pack of Nazi sympathisers, who commit the outrage that eventually causes the teenaged Hannibal to acquire a taste for blood.

After the war he goes to Paris to live with his aunt, played by Gong Li, who introduces him to samurai rituals that hone his lust for revenge, although the handbook clearly doesn't recommend eating the enemy. Enough to say that Hannibal hunts down his gang of war criminals all over the world where they have taken refuge from the past.

It sounds like a good idea to go back to the beginning and explain how things came to pass. Unfortunately, it doesn't work. To give Hannibal a reason to kill serves to humanise him, which in turn mitigates and even neutralises his evil. In a horror film this is fatal. Hannibal is such a chilling character precisely because his actions emerge from an abyss of malevolence that exists beyond all reason and imagination. Placing the character on the therapist's couch achieves the opposite of what the genre requires and kills him as an object of fascination or inspirer of fear. It's more like Hannibal sinking than rising.

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