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— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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Hannibal opens with a creepy bang. In the first minutes, the face of Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter appears in a formation of pigeons fluttering around on a plaza in Florence, Italy. There’s also an eerie conversation with a horribly disfigured Hannibal survivor. The promising start quickly fades away, however, as the movie gets tethered to a very flimsy story.

As directed by Ridley Scott, the movie finds tension here and there, and as a way of overcompensating, the final 20 minutes offer two of the most bizarre set pieces ever inflicted on mainstream audiences and a truly memorable final scene that makes one think of all the devilish possibilities that could have been.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Tasteless

Anthony Hopkins in FlorenceOne of the hallmarks of Scott’s style (Alien, Gladiator) is the preponderance of eye candy. His movies give the viewer loads of luscious images upon which to gaze even as, often times, the story and character development suffer.

While there is eye candy aplenty in Hannibal (much of the action takes place in Florence, a photogenic city that offers visual grandeur in spades), it can’t overcome the mediocre material it is trying to support.

That material (based on Thomas Harris’ novel) essentially tells a tale of the well-to-do and the cruelty they inflict on each other.

Gary Oldman (Immortal Beloved, The Contender), one of the most versatile actors around, plays Mason Verger, a rare survivor of Lecter’s odd appetite. In a moment of seduction, Verger literally feeds himself to the dogs. It’s a bizarre plot idea that foreshadows the film’s unique climax.

Verger was a rich playboy — and pedophile — looking for fun. As he not so ashamedly says of his encounter with Lecter, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Now, more than ten years later, he’s searching for the escaped doctor and he wants vengeance.

Then there’s Lecter himself, masquerading as Dr. Fell in the ivory towers of Florentine academia, lecturing on history, savoring the cuisine, and attending the opera (in a prime seat, no less — no cheapie seats for the good doctor on the lam).

The association of evil and wealth extends to a couple of the supporting characters, but not to Clarice Starling, the heroine played by Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs. With Julianne Moore (Boogie Nights, The End of the Affair) filling her shoes, she is still the strong female that is Lecter’s match move for move. Her “white trash” background seems to be a saving grace for her as the wealthy characters chew each other out.

Okey Dokey, Dr. Hannibal

Granted, there are some humorous touches along the way. For instance, investigations reveal that a copy of The Joy of Cooking, signed by Lecter, fetched $16,000 in an auction (Hopkins in fact sent signed copies of The Joy Of Cooking to friends to promote this movie).

There’s also Anthony Hopkins’ well-done performance. He is ever so polite as he hoists up his next victim, uttering chit-chat to help put the mind at ease.

It’s as if Harris is trying to create within Lecter the “despicable hero” type of character that Patricia Highsmith developed in her series of Tom Ripley books. The Talented Mr. Ripley followed a young murderer as he lived the high life of one of his victims; Anthony Minghella successfully translated that book to film in 1999. Hannibal fails to reach the same level of morbid fantasy.

Instead, seeing Lecter stroll through Florence in a fedora and trenchcoat somehow evokes images of Truman Capote and winds up bringing to mind a different kind of creepiness.

Food for Thought

The movie takes a stab at creating some relevance by mentioning God and questioning matters of faith. But they’re weak attempts and seem tacked on to try to distract the viewer from what is an otherwise monotonous story.

The film loses its pace early on and, instead of ratcheting up the tension as the narrative unfolds, it drifts from storyline to storyline. It never really focuses enough attention on any one situation to develop a real sense of panic. While the ending is gruesome and in line with the opening tone of the film, it doesn’t remove the bad taste left from the undercooked middle portion.

Yes, Hopkins gobbles up the scenery when he’s on screen, but his attempts to spice up the weak recipe aren’t enough to salvage the soufflĂ©.