There was no reason to expect much from Hannibal. Nothing about it suggested that it might be interesting: it’s the unnecessary sequel to Silence of the Lambs, an intelligent and sturdily crafted film. It’s drawn from a universally reviled book. And it’s directed by the bombastic Ridley Scott. The only promising element was the fact that the often brilliant Julianne Moore was replacing Jodie Foster as FBI agent Clarice Starling.

Yet even with expectations carefully attenuated, it is shocking to see the depths to which Hannibal sinks. Less a movie than a cesspool, it’s as dehumanizing and repugnant a film as has ever been released by a major studio. Reveling in both gore and pretense, it’s Herschell Gordon Lewis-style exploitation with lavish art direction: The Gore-Gore Girls as directed by Luchino Visconti. The tony visuals and lush score are an attempt to make the basest material look like art.

The film opens with a sucker punch of a scene. Escaped cannibal and serial killer Hannibal Lecter’s former prison guard has hoarded a collection of Lecter’s personal effects, all of which now bring top dollar on the black market. He’s meeting now with his best customer, Mason Vergel (Gary Oldman), the only man to have survived an attack by Lecter. (In a ludicrous flashback, we see that Lecter talked Vergel into removing his own face with a shard of broken mirror.) Vergel’s now obsessed with finding and torturing Lecter, using his considerable resources to exert political pressure on the FBI to help him pursue his vendetta.

What makes the scene risible is its rapt fascination with Verger’s horrific disfigurement. Not only did Scott and his accomplishes take pains to create facial makeup of extraordinary realism, they linger on it in endless close-ups. It’s a repulsive tactic, parading infirmity and mutilation for Grand Guinol thrills. We’re not asked to feel any sympathy for Verger, who’s the closest thing to a villain in a film that celebrates the derring-do of a serial killer. His presentation instead invites squeamish pleasure in his victimization. When, later in the film, Scott pointedly cuts between close-ups of Verger and a boar, emphasizing the similarity of their appearance, the film moves from the grotesque to the inexcusably offensive.

This sets the tone for the rest of the film. The most degrading imagery is paraded for our titillation: we see disenbowelings, a vicious animal attack, and a campy act of brutality so extreme in its presentation that one shudders to think how the next installment will try to top it. Scott lingers in each case on the suffering of the victims, not out of compassion for their pain but instead to milk this pain for our amusement – often literally, playing the most excessive violence for queasy laughter.

For all its problems, Jonathon Demme’s Silence of the Lambs was the work of a director who cared for his characters. We learned enough about the victims to feel something when they were abducted: we had an emotional stake in their plight. Here, Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter dominates the film so thoroughly that no other character quite registers. The victims are meat, a chance for Lecter to demonstrate his power and toss off a bon mot while they twitch in agony. Demme’s film flirted with this as well, giving Lecter all the best lines and inviting us to enjoy his flight at movie’s end. But we never lost sight of the fact that, for all his charisma, Lecter was an animal.

Beyond its amorality, there’s nothing of interest in Hannibal. The plot is perfunctory and occasionally ridiculous, revolving around Verger’s machinations to use Starling as bait for luring Lecter from Italy. The performances are mediocre at best. Lecter – especially a Lecter free to leave his cell – plays to Hopkins’ weakness for ham. He’s competent enough but he never catches the insidious nightmare tone of his work in the Demme film. Moore is flat, lost with nothing to do. Her imitation of the West Virginian twang Foster adopted for the role is pitch perfect, but the script gives her only two emotions: she broods and she yells. When she delivers her one joke (a nasty one-liner that has co-scenarist David Mamet’s fingerprints all over it), it’s an enormous relief: it proves that the character’s not, in fact, sleeping.

The film looks good – all Ridley Scott movies look good – and the action scenes are much more rigorous in their staging than his plodding Gladiator. The music is too lush by half. Scott and his composer Hans Zimmer are aiming for operatic emotions, but the effect instead is of inflation, attempting to push the tawdry brutality into a realm it’s simply not interesting enough to reach.

Hannibal may well be an attempt at transgressive, disturbing art. If so, it’s an even bigger failure than it seems at first glance. Scott has aestheticized the material without investing it with consequences. The violence is, finally, too pretty. We’re never implicated in what we see, nor are we asked to consider it. The film’s effects are so calculated that our response can only be purely visceral: we flinch, we cover our eyes. Mostly, we just retch.

Gary Mairs

poster from MovieGoods