Brain Food and Soul Food

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FBI agent Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore) has tracked Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) into Washington's Union Station. Now she's lost his trail. She scans the crowd, her back to a whirling carousel. She doesn't notice a hand ruffling her hair--hardly more than a breeze--of someone riding the carousel. Lecter.

A banquet of creepy, gory or grotesque incidents is on display in Hannibal, the corrosive and haunting film version of Thomas Harris' sequel to The Silence of the Lambs. One man is disemboweled and hanged in public, his entrails dangling like a watch fob. Another is thrown to ravenous wild boars as a Lucullan snack. A third malefactor is condemned to dine on a little brain food (his own); it's Lecter's idea of just desserts. But none of these atrocities is more disquieting than that moment at the carousel--the first-ever physical contact between a cannibal of genius and his righteous pursuer. For a second we fear that crime literature's favorite mad doctor will yank Clarice aboard the carousel. Perhaps scalp her. But not here, not now. This is the briefest caress, a boyish flirtation, a threat of things to come.

The film Silence of the Lambs, for all its Oscars, only skimmed the lower depths in which Harris' novel swam with a spooky understanding of every bottom-dwelling creature. Hannibal, adapted by David Mamet and Steven Zaillian, fiddles more with its source and reworks--improves upon--that novel's ending. Director Ridley Scott is nicely attuned to Harris' depiction of evil, of the strength and seduction in depravity. Each gargoyle gets his due: greedy detective Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), the venal official Krendler (Ray Liotta). Even Mason Verger, the pedophile with the skinless face (Gary Oldman, under a layer of Toussaud wax), brings wit to his lurid vengefulness. All the actors do expert turns. And Moore makes a fine, severe Clarice. As Lecter consumes his victims, so Clarice assumes their pain until her face becomes a steel mask, her quest a curse. Clarice's empathy is that of the dead grieving for the dead.

Hannibal gets deeper under Lecter's skin, and Hopkins feels more at ease inside it; he revels in this sociopath's freedom from scruple. Lecter's deadliest weapon is not his teeth or other cutlery but his gift for the jugular--his ability to discern and exploit human weakness. Hopkins plays him, suavely, as the anticonscience, the voice of mischief inside anyone with ambition and a grudge. The Devil works in whispers.

The movie, handsomely photographed by John Mathieson, lives in the shadows and in subtle shades of temptation. Lecter, for instance, is tempted by Clarice's purity; he needs to devour it, if only to see if he has the will to spit it out. Caressing her hair is not enough. Can the vampire kiss the virgin? Can she resist? These, not the grotty little murders, are the crucial, thrilling issues at Hannibal's dark heart.