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Fine Young Cannibal

Hannibal is explained, but at the expense of being scary.

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The Hannibal thriller franchise ("Silence of the Lambs," "Hannibal" and the prequel "Red Dragon") gets an extraneous fourth installment, "Hannibal Rising," from best-selling novelist and scriptwriter Thomas Harris, who apparently decided that the cannibal canon wouldn't be complete without telling the origins of the good Dr. Hannibal Lecter. But even iconic film producer Dino De Laurentiis — with more than 150 films to his credit — can't compensate for the material's manifest shortcomings by stacking the deck with an ardently talented cast and crew, bold performances and a European backdrop.

French actor Gaspard Ulliel plays the incipient serial killer who, after his affluent parents are murdered by Nazis near his family's Lithuanian castle, witnesses the cannibalization of his younger sister by a desperate pack of rogue soldiers who take the siblings hostage in a nearby hunting lodge. Hannibal becomes temporarily mute before he's taken to a brutal Soviet orphanage, where his detached, cruel reasoning is solidified. Soon he escapes to Paris, where his widowed Japanese aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), welcomes him. It isn't long before Hannibal's indoctrination into Japanese traditions, French cuisine and medical techniques arm him for a killing spree unlike any other.

Director Peter Webber ("Girl With a Pearl Earring") grabs your attention with a staggering wartime opening sequence that looks like something out of a Paul Verhoeven movie. A fighter plane crashes into a manned Nazi tank near the castle grounds, and production designer Allan Starski ("The Pianist") puts the metallic taste of war into your mouth as the dark shadows of death fall on the winter ground. With introductory scenes such as this, the filmmakers establish an anti-war theme which is also a source of personal devastation for Hannibal, who will inevitably deal out violence of his own. Yet it's here, too, that the audience starts to be robbed of its own dark and abstract ideas about the source of Hannibal's nefarious desires. As suspense master Alfred Hitchcock taught us, the true nature of fright lives in the piqued imagination of the spectator. Using our imaginations to fill in the blanks about the motivations of a Norman Bates or a Hannibal Lecter is half the fun.

"Silence of the Lambs" is one of the scariest films of the past 20 years because we are led to contemplate the potential for evil behind the dilated pupils of Anthony Hopkins' demented character. Hannibal's disposition for a twisted empathy toward Jodie Foster's vulnerable Clarice Starling is deeply unsettling, because it suggests a strange reciprocal relationship between them and the cryptic serial killer, Buffalo Bill, she attempts to locate. Hopkins' Hannibal penetrates Starling's psyche and consequently our own subconscious via Foster's character. The subtle narrative raises unpleasant questions about our own susceptibility to destructive influences and provides grist for our nightmares to sort out.

In "Hannibal Rising," our protagonist is the killer. With a deep dimple on his left cheek that doubles as a scar of unimaginable origin, Ulliel is endlessly watchable. His strikingly handsome features belie the internal wounds of Hannibal's traumatic childhood that we become privy to. And so when a butcher at a public French market insults Lady Murasaki about the orientation of her genitalia, we look forward to Hannibal's bloody revenge, necessitating the use of a samurai sword in the service of a comical decapitation. The scene, which takes place near a lake where the butcher fishes, is the most enjoyable sequence of the movie for its gallows humor.

Enter Inspector Popil (Dominic West) to investigate the murder. Where the author should have introduced a more powerful element of suspense and dangerous interplay between the characters, Popil provides the story with a retrograde momentum. Having whetted his appetite for murder, Hannibal sets about hunting down and dispatching the soldiers that cooked his little sister and shared the broth of her soup with him. Details about Hannibal's taste for consuming the cheeks of his victims seem a perfunctory touch, as does his evolving love affair with his aunt, who becomes a willing accomplice to his crimes.

Director of photography Ben Davis captures dense visual compositions that succeed in giving fertile, classical underpinnings to Harris' formulaic plot. For all of the story's lack of suspense and terror, it is Ulliel who makes the movie dramatic. He gives an audacious performance that bewitches the viewer into relishing something that we should not. But there's nothing to be frightened of. (R) 117 min. ** S

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