[BEWARE! SPOILERS BELOW FOR "HANNIBAL RISING"!]
Evil has always been one of the most powerful of explanations that does not explain. It captivates our attention, taps into the stories of sin and saints and devils that still lie deep beneath our culture, and distracts us from causality. In the simplicity of its "just because" handwaving, of the mystical, inalterable essence it assumes, evil as explanation enchants us away from the messy job of linking a horrific present to a very real past. The confusing tangle of "she did", "I did", "they did", and "we did" is so easily swept away by a boldly proclaimed "He is!" or "They are!"
On a superficial level, "Hannibal Rising" attempts to go beyond this. The adaptation of Thomas Harris' latest Hannibal Lecter book, it takes one of the most chilling fictional murderers of recent decades and refuses to be satisfied that he does what he does simply because of what he is, insisting that he must have come from somewhere. Yet it does not even come close to escaping the notion that evil is its own explanation and this results in a far less compelling film than the original "Silence of the Lambs".
Though there is also something ridiculous about it, in terms of the psychological impact it would have had, the original trauma proposed as the source of Lecter's monstrousness is plausible enough. He is a seven or eight year-old boy at the beginning of the film, scion to an aristocratic Lithuanian family. It is 1944 and the Red Army is on the verge of pushing the Nazi Wehrmacht out of Lithuania. The front is about to pass over his family's lands, so they retreat from their castle to a small lodge in the woods. Random war violence kills his parents. A band of local men who had been collaborating in genocide with the SS comes across him and his four year-old sister in the lodge, where they are all promptly stranded by war danger and weather. There is no food. So, of course, the Lituanian quislings kill and eat his sister. We next see him as a teen, nightmare-stricken and mute, in the "people's orphanage" that has been made of his family's castle, and soon after he escapes to Paris, finds his rich uncle's widow, and eventually goes to medical school and wreaks bloody vengeance on the men who ate his sister.
Okay. Sure. That'd mess a person up.
Unfortunately, in its exploration of the origins of evil, the film does not get beyond the rather banal idea that trauma is traumatizing -- that horrifically traumatizing circumstances will lead to horrifically traumatized individuals, some of whom will respond to their trauma by doing messed up things (albeit relatively few to anything approaching the spectacular excess exhibited by Lecter across his career). Rather than say anything interesting or subversive, the film taps into some already existing and quite pat narratives about evil and instead of playing with them or even challenging them, it just does its best to harness them for maximum dramatic effect and gore value.
The first warning bell was the World War II setting. Even six decades later, the narrative of the "good war" is, in North America at least, one of the most easily mobilized and hard to counter public mythologies that divides the world cleanly into essential good and essential evil. The wealth of scholarship showing this clear division to be utter hogwash has done little to change the fact that a core component of any effort today to publically demonize the official enemy of the moment still involves heavy-handed use of WWII-based imagery, from comparisons to Hitler to invokation of words like "axis". Basing an exploration of the origins of evil in this millieu is indicative of something of a lack of imagination and hints, even before any other evidence is presented, at a lack of much interesting to say.
The lack of imagination goes from scent on the wind to unpalatable reek when it turns out that the film is largely populated by cartoon Nazis. I am perhaps being unfair, but the one actual SS officer that appears briefly in the film was sufficiently caricature-like that he made me think of Herr Flick from the British sitcom "'Allo, 'Allo". The Lithuanian fascist collaborators could have been taken straight out of some 1950s U.S. comic book they were so one-dimensional. Though I doubt many comics in that era had even their villains eating small children, but you get my meaning.
And so, everything is explained: Hannibal is evil because of what these cartoon Nazis did to him. They are evil because -- well, because they are cartoon Nazis, who are evil by definition. Quod erat demonstrandum. It is a rather short trip to go from the destabilizing place of actually seeking explanations and back to the safe ground of "They are!", isn't it?
Part of why this very flat portrayal of evil is so disappointing cinematically and not just intellectually is that you cannot watch the film without thinking aboput Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of the much older Hannibal Lecter at the other end of his cannibalistic career (and however uneven the quality of the films made after "Silence of the Lambs", he is always a powerful presence). I suspect there is something uncool, some sort of desensitization to violence and internalization of the objectification of human beings, implicit in any fascination with a monster like Hopkins' Lecter, but I confess to finding him very compelling. A part of that for me is his ability to see inside those around him with uncanny accuracy -- something that has always drawn me to fictional characters, from Lecter to Rex Stout's "Nero Wolfe" and beyond. But it is also the overall package, the striking combination of aristocratic cultural refinement with inhuman violence, of powerful perception with absence of empathy, of over-the-top evilness with the sense of three-dimensionality that Hopkins' considerable talents bring to the part. It is this sense of three-dimensionality that is absent from the most recent film. It is perhaps understandable that Gaspard Ulliel's portrayal of the young Lecter not only couldn't combine those elements as Hopkins does -- he's alright, but his capabilities are not in the same league -- but that it shouldn't. After all, we are looking to learn where the mature Lecter came from, so he should not already exist fully formed. However, I think there could have been greater skill employed (and I blame the screenwriting more than the acting for this) in showing these things in embryonic form, but things like his exquisite manners, his distinctive affect, and hints of his future ability to read Clarice Starling at a glance are dropped in rather clumsily. For all that this exercise is about providing Lector with more depth by giving him a history, he does not actually come across with nearly the same complexity as his future self -- he is not a complete cut-out, but he is still quite flat. And the evil that made him evil, the cartoon Nazis, seems even more ridiculous than they otherwise would because they exist in the shadow of the older Lecter of the other films.
Another disappointing element in the portrayal of Lecter's path to evil, and another demonstration of a lack of anything resembling a critical imagination, was deliberate exploitation of racialized/racist narratives already existing in the audience's imagination to give a dramatic boost to the story. Lecter's rich aunt-by-marriage is a Japanese woman, Lady Murasaka Shikibu, played by Li Gong. I was actually on a trip to the bathroom when the character was introduced so it took me a couple of minutes to figure out who she was when I resumed my seat. At first, I was pleasantly surprised -- there have been small numbers of people of colour in the West for centuries even though they are not allowed any space in the popular projections of European and North American history (other than slaves) until the 1960s or so, so the choice to have a main character in 1950s Europe played by a woman of colour is plausible and, though hardly revolutionary, still unHollywood-like, unconventional and mildly positive when a white actor could fill the part just as well.
Except, of course, a couple of minutes further along it became clear that his aunt was Asian not incidentally but to give the story access by the presence of her body to certain racialized/racist narratives in the European and EuroAmerican cultural repertoire associated with Asian-ness. Her "otherness" and her "exoticness" as constructed in the white imagination could then be deliberately used to add particular kinds of intensity and "flavour" to Hannibal's story. For example, soon after he moves in with her, he comes upon her as she prays at a shrine to her ancestors somewhere in the bowels of her palatial home. I have no idea how accurate the shrine and her relation to it may or may not be, culturally speaking, but that is really of secondary concern. What matters is its deliberate use to create a sense of "different", of "other", of "not normal, not right." This was helpfully illustrated by the two older white people sitting behind me, one of whom commented a few seconds into the shrine's first appearance, "She's a devil worshipper!" Hannibal develops a connection to the shrine. It inclues some antique samurai armour and blades, and in one shot he tries on a mask-like piece of the armour that foreshadows the hospital restraints worn by the older Lecter in other movies, and he uses the blades in his killing. The shrine is clearly an important part of his journey away from "normal" and towards monstrosity. And to take all of this deliberate and mercenary deployment of Orientalist imagery from the gross to the ridiculous, they actually have a short series of shots implying that Lady Murasaka taught martial arts to Lecter. Not only is this the tired old Orientalist bit in which the "wise Asian" grants the "secrets of the East" to the worthy or beloved white man, but it also strikes me as laughably unrealistic. My knowledge of Japanese culture and history is pretty shallow, but was it really a natural and unremarkable thing for an upper-class Japanese woman born in the 1920s (more or less) to have warrior training, or are we just supposed to go along with this without question because, y'know, she's Asian and all, so of course she knows kung fu?
On the other hand, given the fact that most of the rest of the screen time belongs to Lecter himself, to the cartoon Nazis, and to a Nazi-hunting French police inspector who was scarcely less cartoony than his prey, Lady Murasaka was presented as the most humanized major character in the film, except perhaps child-Lecter and his pre-consumption sister in the first few scenes. In a dominant media environment where the bodies of racialized women tend to be presented most often as objects when they aren't ignored completely, this is a positive thing, I suppose.
The climax of the film seems to confirm the rejection of explanation and the embrace of evil as essence rather than consequence. Just as Lecter is about to kill the chief of the cartoon Nazis that dined on his sister, said fascist thug shares the tidbit that Lecter too gained sustenance from her flesh in the form of broth fed him while semi-conscious and delirious. It is this unsettling news that forces him to complete his journey of transition from child traumatized by war to man ready for decades of remorseless cannibalism. Obviously you can read this as further trauma completing the damage, but it is also a metaphor of essential taint ingested and incorporated. This piece of news transforms his activities from vengeance (which tends to be understood much more sympathetically in Hollywood-land than in the real world even when it is taken to extremes, and is therefore treated as human) to pathology.
Therefore: He is. The others who made him did not so much create him as infect him. Evil is incomprehensible and divorced from history, the film tells us, and any attempt to look at history to understand evil is doomed sooner or later to run aground upon the rocks of Satan's presence, the horrid Other who cannot be explained but must simply be feared and fought at all costs, so we might as well not bother asking "why". Moreover, we see this essential evil in the film, we see its symbolic markers of excess and depravity, and we know that it is not us, therefore we must be good and any who accuse us of anything that might be remotely considered evil are themselves alien and other and need not be listened to. We are titilated while at the same time reassured that hard questions serve no purpose.
Yet I cannot keep my mind from returning to the widespread fascination with the older Lecter, Hopkins' Lecter. He is, really, us, or an ideal of us. He is highly capable, cultured, brilliant, and aristocratically polite -- most of us who are somewhat privileged but are not all of those things have been trained, deep down even if we disdain them on the surface, to see them as markers of real worth, of importance, of all the things we are supposed to desire in life. What makes him fascinating is not that his killing makes him different and inhuman. Not at all. Because I think on some level, most of us in North America recognize that our comfort is built in very direct ways on suffering -- we are too squeamish to eat anyone's tongue ourselves, but the social relations that make us who we are require, at a nice deniable distance from us, a steady supply of bodies. Our designer couches are drenched in blood and our wealth rests upon stacks of corpses. What is fascinating about Lecter is that he has found a way around the repression and denial (the tools most privileged North Americans use most of the time to deal with this discomfiting knowledge) and the paralyzing guilt (a supplementary tool for liberals who still don't actually want to deal with the reality when forced for a brief time out of denial) and is so comfortable that his pleasures are based on the suffering and deaths of others that he can just get on with life, and still have all of those qualities that we have been trained to admire. He is the perfect man of privilege. He is fascinating because he has solved a dilemma that lurks deep in the privileged North American unconscious, yet he has done so in a way that stories about him not only do not challenge the collective denial of the viewer, they help reinforce it -- evil is essence, we are told, and we are not cartoon Nazis. Therefore, we must be essentially Good. Therefore, we must continue to fear the Other, while avoiding any examination of our own roles in the world.
He is. We are. They are.
[BEWARE! SPOILERS ABOVE FOR "HANNIBAL RISING"!]