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Hannibal Rising

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Hannibal Rising works well as a thriller. Read on:

For the sake of this review, let’s set aside the implicit mystery that drove Hannibal Lecter as a character, the implied absence of motive or reasoning behind his serial killer ways, the inscrutability of the sophisticated doctor with the cannibalistic leanings. Lecter, who through the course of three films beginning with 1991′s The Silence of the Lambs (plus the not as well remembered side trip in 1986 Manhunter) has become one of the greatest screen villains of all time, has thrived on his impenetrability, his superiority, his evil-for-evil’s-sake actions. Yes, we need to put that all aside when discussing Hannibal Rising because the new film by its very nature must work against the previous ambiguity of Hannibal’s motives.

Hannibal Rising is a prequel, an origin story for the legendary murderer. That’s a tough trick to pull off — just ask Darth Vader. Fans of the Star Wars films know now that Vader was a much more interesting character after he had fallen to the Dark Side as opposed to before he switched sides. Can it be any different for Lecter now that all of his secrets are to be revealed to audiences?

It turns out that Lecter is a poor little rich boy. When we first meet him, he’s an eight-year-old scion of affluence, living in Lithuania with his parents and his younger sister Mischa. World War II is underway, and it has spilled into young Hannibal’s world when a battle between the Germans and the Russians accidentally results in the death of the boy’s parents. Alone, and seeking shelter in a farmhouse from the harsh winter, Hannibal and Mischa soon find themselves the captives of a group of vicious looters who are also looking for shelter — not just from the elements, but from the authorities too. As the winter drags on and starvation sneaks up on the group, it soon becomes clear that cannibalism may be the only option in order for the villains to stay alive.

The latter part of this intro, as conveyed by director Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring) and scripter/Hannibal novelist Thomas Harris, is told in snippets of flashback, as the older, traumatized Lecter (French actor Gaspard Ulliel) attempts to piece together what really happened years earlier. Now a young man in his teens and living under the tyranny of Soviet occupation, Hannibal is stuck in an inhospitable orphanage — formerly the castle of the Lecter family, no less. Apparently rendered mute as a result of the tragic loss of his family, the boy nonetheless displays a steely willpower and cunning smarts. His escape from the orphanage is inevitable, and satisfyingly (for the audience) painful to one of his overseers at the place.

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In theaters: February 9, 2007

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