By Owen Gleiberman
Updated February 14, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Keith Hamshere
  • Movie

How dumb, how cloddishly literal and silly and demented a piece of nonsense, is Hannibal Rising? Just see if this doesn’t leave you choking on your liver. Near the end of World War II, Hannibal Lecter (Gaspard Ulliel), a young Lithuanian noble with black marble eyes, watches his parents get killed by the Nazis (and that’s the least of his problems). He flees to Paris and moves in with his Japanese-born aunt, the severely beautiful and devoted Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), who likes to kneel, in ritual worship, before a suit of samurai armor. Under her tutelage, Hannibal learns the martial arts, just like Bruce Wayne or the Karate Kid, and at one point he dons the armor’s facial mask, with its sticklike ”teeth.” It looks very much like — you guessed it — the mask used to subdue Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

But wait a minute. It’s not as if that mask was ever a part of Lecter’s arsenal; it was snapped onto his face against his will. Having him wear an early version of it makes no sense (it would be like having Lee Harvey Oswald, as a boy, pestered by a schoolyard bully named Little Jack Ruby), and so all that comes across is that the filmmakers recognized the mask as a marketing icon and felt compelled to squeeze it into the movie. They couldn’t have been more bluntly idiotic about it had they made the young Hannibal a teenage farmer who sows a sunny acre of fava beans.

Hannibal Rising was written by Thomas Harris, who adapted his recent prequel novel, but it proves that Harris is no longer in touch with the viciously witty demon-superman he created in 1981’s Red Dragon. It seems that Lecter, during the war, was captured by a pack of Eastern European thugs who survived by killing and eating his little sister. This, of course, is supposed to be the Freudian skeleton key to Lecter’s cannibalistic obsession, but as an explanation it doesn’t just misunderstand Lecter — it violates his essence. Haunted by seeing his sibling turned into snack food, Lecter hunts down the brutes who committed the crime. The killings get progressively more violent: He eats one man’s cheeks (cooking up a mushroom-and-flesh brochette over a campfire) and slashes the chest of another in a way that would make Sid Vicious cower. The movie is Death Wish with human giblets.

The trouble is, we’re so used to the conventions of revenge thrillers that everything Lecter does here, in movie terms, is boringly justified. The Dr. Lecter we know and love, on the other hand, kills and eats whomever he feels like, and that certainly means you or me. He scarcely needs the rationalization of vengeance, and he is not — repeat, not — a sociopath. (”They don’t know what else to call him,” mused Will Graham in Manhunter.) He’s an amoral Nietzschean killer king, whose intelligence places him so far above the rest of the human race that he can slay us all like ants. Hannibal Rising reduces this great creature of the pop imagination to a Eurotrash Boy Scout throwing a homicidal snit fit. D

Hannibal Rising

  • Movie
  • R
  • 121 minutes
  • Peter Webber