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Published: Friday, 2/9/2007

Movie review: Hannibal Rising ***

BY BARBARA VANCHERI
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE
Anthony Hopkins cannot darken his hair enough to play Hannibal this time, so the role is handled by, briefly, a boy named Aaron Thomas and then French actor Gaspard Ulliel. Anthony Hopkins cannot darken his hair enough to play Hannibal this time, so the role is handled by, briefly, a boy named Aaron Thomas and then French actor Gaspard Ulliel.
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Being crazy and evil just isn't enough anymore.

Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs uttered one of the best movie lines of all time: "A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti." Were you unable to sleep wondering why?

Lecter, as played by Anthony Hopkins, was the No. 1 villain on the American Film Institute list and he never needed a back story - until now.

Hannibal Rising shows us how sweet little Hannibal Lecter, beloved son and big brother to a cherubic girl named Mischa, turns into a man who bites off people's cheeks and cooks them over an open flame, with freshly picked mushrooms. You'll never think of the phrase "sweet cheeks" in quite the same way.

Hopkins cannot darken his hair enough to play Hannibal this time, so the role is handled by, briefly, a boy named Aaron Thomas and then French actor Gaspard Ulliel. Neither looks like he could age into Hopkins but that's more a fleeting distraction than a fatal liability, as in The Human Stain.

Hannibal Rising opens in Lithuania in 1944 in the waning days of World War II. The Lecters flee from their castle but are caught in the crossfire of war. When their parents are killed, Hannibal tries to protect his younger sister from the army deserters who hold them captive.

With the roads blocked, the ground frozen, and the food gone, the marauders announce, "We eat or die," and cast unsettling glances the children's way. The story jumps eight years ahead, with Hannibal now living in a Soviet orphanage.

He seethes with secret rage and is plagued by nightmares. After discovering the address of relatives in France, he heads there by train and on foot, only to discover his uncle has died but his aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), is happy to take him in and teach him about swordplay and martial arts.

Hannibal's thirst for revenge grows more feverish once he begins medical school and later finds information about the war criminals from his past. Hannibal Rising tracks him as he tries to avenge the deaths that shape - or warp - him, turning him into a monster. That's the word used by a police inspector (Dominic West) who also carries the scars of World War II, as does Lady Murasaki.

Hannibal Rising, directed by Peter Webber (Girl With a Pearl Earring), was written by Thomas Harris, the man who introduced the world to Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling. This is one case where you cannot argue that the writer doesn't have a handle on the character.

Hannibal rising, however, is nowhere near as darkly intriguing as Hannibal fully formed. Too often, Hannibal Rising descends into your standard revenge drama - with a garnish of cannibalism.

For instance, the tip of a blade shoved under the jaw goes through the skull and heads routinely are separated from their bodies. However, a scene where a man drowns in a water tank is visually arresting, and Welsh actor Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill) utterly disappears into Vladis Grutas, a psychopathic ringleader.

A revelation about Hannibal will come as a surprise to no one and almost none of the lines are devilishly delicious, but if you're a completist, you may want to see where it all started. This spins the clock back before the events of Harris' novel Red Dragon, twice turned into movies (1986's Manhunter with Brian Cox and William Petersen and 2002's Red Dragon, with Oscar winner Hopkins and Edward Norton).

Lecter's cannibalistic genius is made for the movies but Silence was the five-star (and five-Oscar) gourmet meal. Its taste still lingers.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Barbara Vancheri is the Post-Gazette movie editor.

Contact her at:

bvancheri@post-gazette.com.



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