Satanic Virtues

The avalanche of publicity for Hannibal has made it the most
widely anticipated film of the season. Small wonder: Only the bravest of
moviemakers would dare to carry on the story of Hannibal Lecter and
Clarice Starling, told with such stunning effect 10 years ago in
Silence of the Lambs.

That these stories are meant to be more than horror-cum-detective
tales is evident from the names of the protagonists. It's not too
lit-crit to point out that "Hannibal" calls to mind the brutally
triumphal ruler and "Lecter" (lecturer) the pontifical voice, while
"Clarice" is a reworking of Clarissa, the morally unsullied heroine in
Samuel Richardson's eponymous eighteenth-century novel--a character
fatefully entangled with a man at once her protector and the cause of
her destruction. Such lofty references could be pure pretense, of
course, but the conceit actually works. Silence of the Lambs
introduces its audience to a face of evil previously unimagined. Just as
ambitiously, Hannibal endows it with a perversely calibrated
moral compass.

From the first moment he appears on the screen in Silence of the
Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) commands attention as the
personification of evil. He doesn't have to do anything--his appearance
tells all. He's standing in his sealed prison cell, motionless,
separated by a wall of glass from his justifiably fearful captors. With
his arms at his side and his legs slightly spread, his eyes searching
out prey and his nostrils twitching at the hint of danger (or the faint
scent of perfume), he's a predator momentarily at rest. This astonishing
character--the brilliant and arrogant psychiatrist with a mind that can
twist the heart of things; the beast with a seemingly insatiable desire
for human flesh (ideally accompanied by a fine Chianti); the
over-the-top, almost foppish creature who delights in tormenting his
would-be adversaries--propels a Gothic masterpiece.

The pivotal cat-and-mouse game in Silence of the Lambs is
between Lecter and Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), an FBI rookie who
combines a passion for justice and Girl Scout idealism with raging
ambition. Starling has been sent by her superiors to seduce the man
known as Hannibal the Cannibal into helping the FBI track down another
carnivorous killer known, because he skins his victims, as Buffalo Bill.
Lecter, who is demonstrably capable of driving a fellow prisoner to
swallow his own tongue, initially toys with Starling's mind ("you're not
more than one generation from poor white trash"). Ultimately, though,
he's captivated by her integrity.

Starling gives the demon the respect he believes is his due. In turn,
Lecter gives her the clue that enables her to succeed where her
superiors have failed--in puzzling out Buffalo Bill's identity--even as
he frees himself, cunningly picking the lock on his own handcuffs and
then, in the most viscerally powerful scene in the film, literally
devouring the face of a prison guard. In this odd reciprocity, there's a
hint of Beauty and the Beast, though the tale has just
begun--there's only the merest sense that Lecter and Starling might each
transform the other.

Hannibal picks up the story nine years later. Lecter (Anthony
Hopkins once again), still on the loose, has made his way to Florence,
where he has refashioned himself as a curator at the Palazzo Capponi and
a masterful lecturer on Italian Renaissance art. Starling (Julianne
Moore), still an FBI agent, has been around the block many times, yet
despite everything she has witnessed, her commitment to justice remains
intact. It's no easy feat to sing both songs of innocence and songs of
experience. As countless representations of Heaven attest, purity,
however commendable, is ultimately boring in its depiction; and besides,
it strains credulity to reconcile purity with the fact of having killed
more criminals in the line of duty than any other woman in the bureau.
Moore pulls it off, though. Her Starling is a straight-ahead agent with
a Manichaean view of the world who can also weep when she kills a female
drug lord, a mother who's holding her infant while shooting a mac-10 at
Starling. The Clarice Starling who emerges is not merely older and wiser
than in Silence of the Lambs. She's also a more nuanced character.

At this juncture, the twisted morality play is launched--not
Beauty and the Beast, with its unnerving possibilities of
metamorphosis, but a tale of virtues and vices. Starling's superiors, it
turns out, have long resented her successes. When an operation Starling
has led goes badly awry, they seize the opportunity and punish her
unjustly. In her fall from grace, she's assigned the apparently hopeless
task of tracking down Lecter, who's also being hunted by a creepy
character named Mason Verger (Gary Oldman). Verger's a pedophile; many
years earlier, Lecter, as his psychiatrist, had induced him to disfigure
his own face. This despoiler of innocence, now the physically hideous
embodiment of sin (by comparison, the Elephant Man is Tom Cruise), is
powered by the quest for vengeance. Verger has buckets of money, and
with the connivance of rented hands at the Justice Department, he plots
to use Starling as his tool to hook Lecter. Suddenly Lecter's back on
the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list and Verger has offered a $3-million
reward for his capture.

Meanwhile, in Florence, Detective Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), a bent
cop who's investigating the mysterious disappearance of Lecter's
curatorial predecessor, sees the FBI list and recognizes Lecter's
picture. As a policeman, he's expected to inform the FBI, but instead he
becomes a bounty hunter.

Lecter's survivalist instincts remain as good as ever. When he's
hunted, he kills. Yet with infinitely more freedom of maneuver than he
had in prison, he chooses to match the punishment he metes out to the
particular moral failings of his enemies. In Silence of the
he's unadulterated evil. Now there's a perverse moral
consistency wedded to his fiendishness.

In this inferno, Lecter can consign his victims to their proper
circle in Hell. So it is with Detective Pazzi. Four centuries earlier,
one of Pazzi's ancestors was publicly hanged from a balcony of the
palazzo, and Lecter inflicts precisely the same fate upon the policeman.
Death by hanging, Lecter the art historian lectures, is the price
traditionally paid for the sin of avarice. "Bowels in or bowels out?" he
asks Pazzi, sadistically and almost whimsically, the instant before
stringing him up from the balcony.

To each according to his sins: Behind every planned act of violence
that Hannibal Lecter commits lies a twisted notion of justice (as well
as his patented delight in turning people into supper). The
sumptuousness of director Ridley Scott's film--the painterly quality of
the photography, the operatic score, the lushly extravagant settings--is
of a piece with Lecter's code, which places great value on a maniacal
aesthetic civility.

The ultimate degradation is reserved for Justice Department lawyer
Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), Verger's rented gun, who wants both the
glory of capturing Lecter and the satisfaction of destroying Starling's
career. In a scene far more graphic than anything in Silence of the
Lecter delivers a punishment for Krendler's wretched
treatment of Starling that's reminiscent of Julie Taymor's gorgeously
gruesome Titus (also starring Anthony Hopkins). There, in an act
of rough justice, Titus prepares a meal from the corpses of two
murderous princes and serves it to their mother. Lecter goes one step
further, serving Krendler up to himself. Not only does this punishment
fit the crime; in the boorishness it evokes from its victim, the
punishment illustrates the crime.

Although by any conventional moral calculus the imperfections of
Hannibal Lecter's pursuers don't justify their murders, the perfidies of
the hunters invite the audience's complicity in Lecter's acts. No one's
mourning any of these deaths. Clarice Starling is a different matter
entirely. From the moment that Lecter learns she's back on the case, he
circles around her, goads her with cell phone calls and ornately written
letters, tantalizes her, eludes her. He has no appetite for killing her,
though. Instead he tries to undermine her commitment to by-the-book
justice by pointing out, in Tokyo Rose-style, the ethical bankruptcy of
the system in which she works, a world where the strength of her beliefs
makes her a despised figure. But Lecter, whose powers of persuasion are
usually irresistible, fails to sway Starling. As an embodiment of
virtue, her unwavering intention is to bring Lecter to justice. Indeed,
she has shown that she's willing to risk letting him go free rather than
be complicit in his murder.

With her life literally in his hands, Lecter attempts one final
manipulation: "If you loved me, you'd stop [trying to arrest me]."

"Not in a thousand years!" she replies.

"That's my girl!" says Lecter. This utter incorruptibility compels
him to an act of astonishing self-sacrifice, a gift to someone
who--unlike all those whom he has remorselessly destroyed--has no place
in his self-constructed inferno. Lecter's deed is both a testament to
and a way to secure the continuing bond between himself and Starling. As
well, it is a--dare one use the word?--gallant homage to her virtue.

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