So now we know: Hannibal the Cannibal is the product of wartime trauma. In itself, this is not a terrible idea. The twists it takes in Hannibal Rising are aptly grotesque, though never very insightful.
In 1944, nine-year-old Hannibal (Aaron Thomas) is living in Lithuania with his parents and younger sister Mischa (Helena Lia Tachovska), of whom he is fiercely protective. The Nazis’ arrival is, of course, terrible news, and the family decamps from their castle to a large, rather fortified home in the woods, with servants and stuff. Alas, their efforts are for naught, as the hideout becomes the location of a shootout between Russian tanks and German forces, notably, a fighter plane, which leads to a mighty explosion and dead adults all about. As Hannibal and Mischa watch wide-eyed, mom rises briefly, then collapses into her son’s arms.
Though the kids spend a few on-screen minutes in hiding from wolves and swirling snow, they’re soon discovered by a band of marauders — Germans so nasty they’ve broken off from the Nazis. Their gnarly leader, Grutas (Rhys Ifans), takes his vengeance on a German major, angry over some betrayal: “Now,” he grumbles in an inscrutable accent, “I am een beezness for myself!” This new beezness means keeping his scrappy crew alive during the Eastern European winter; when they run out of food (a close-up shot of a maggoty woodland creature’s corpse suggests their dire circumstance), Grutas decides they must eat one of the kids. As Hannibal remembers repeatedly throughout the film, the villain bites into their last bit of non-human meat, a bird — his mouth adorned with blood and feathers — as he pronounces, “We eat or die.”
The memory eventually leads him to seek vengeance against these men who, he says more than once and with anguish, “ate my sister.” First, however, he has to grow up into a thin, brooding young man (played by Gaspard Ulliel). Found starving and near freezing in the snow by passing Russians, the child is sent to a Soviet orphanage, conveniently, for the evolution of his pathology, located in the Lecter castle. Here he perfects his frosty stare and stabs a bully with a fork. Succinctly reprimanded by the warden — “You do not honor the human pecking order” — Hannibal runs away to find his aunt by marriage, the Japanese wartime survivor Lady Murasaki (Gong Li). Now living in France, she worships her samurai warrior ancestors and instructs Hannibal in martial arts, instilling in him a particular reverence for decapitation (apparently a favorite means to show respect among her predecessors).
That Hannibal is so trained provides him with a knowledge of “action” moves you might not have imagined for the Anthony Hopkins version. But in his lithe-bodied incarnation, Hannibal shows some agility along with his ferocity, coming to a deadly head when Paul the Butcher (Charles Maquignon) insults Murasaki. As the culprit appears large, ugly, and unkempt (he’s introduced while cleaving bloody meat and leering at Murasaki), he’s apparently deserving of Hannibal’s special wrath: the young man stalks him, then assaults and stabs him repeatedly, enacting a little choreography of death before delivering Paul’s head to his aunt. Understandably taken aback, she nonetheless understands the gesture, and helps him to elude the law — embodied by Inspector Popil (Dominic West).
It turns out that Popil has more on his mind than local murders. “My specialty is war crimes,” he informs Hannibal during one interview, “and I know they do not end with the war.” This means Popil will become entangled in Hannibal’s next stage, which is to hunt down and punish the men who “ate my sister.” Once his bloodlust is set off by killing Paul the Butcher, Hannibal is pretty much unstoppable, believing the police to be ineffective as they were during the Nazis’ several invasions. He leaves heads in various locations, leaving the villains’ dog tags in their mouths. The token isn’t exactly elegant or organic, but it is fitting — these bad-teethed monsters were produced by military malfeasance (trained and cheated by the SS), just as the young “monster” (so deemed by Popil) is a function of the evils he’s witnessed and endured.
Hannibal’s executions of the “primal scene” cannibals reveal his inclination for bizarre yuckiness. He ties one fellow to a tree and has his incredibly well trained farm horse pull a rope until the fellow’s body sort of pops (cue blood splat on Hannibal’s face), then eats his cheeks, cooked up with mushrooms. Though such details set up for the older Lecter’s culinary sophistication, they’re also flat-footed. (Though Murasaki is gifted with an entertainingly sinister response: “You smell of smoke and blood,” she murmurs, sniffing at him.) Hannibal is for the most part a bitter, anxious boy-man here, unable to parse his erotic attraction to his aunt, and so, ostensibly, sublimating. That such sublimation is also tied up with his sister’s fate as meat is not just a little ghastly.
Gong Li is so oddly cast here — as a kind of samurai goddess who moonlights as a black-leather-suited biker chick — that Hannibal’s confusion might parallel your own. Murasaki stops short of an actual sexual relationship with Hannibal, suggesting, somewhat practically, that he get out of town following Paul’s murder, And so he embarks on another Hannibal-making adventure, enrolling in medical school, where his work-study duties include preparing cadavers for other students’ autopsies. At this point, it’s as if the movie is checking off the steps that lead to Hannibal as you know him in the sequels to this prequel.
His education in anatomy complements his evolving gastronomic desires. Spinning these interests, as well as his childhood trauma into a kind of dark knighty vengeance, Hannibal is a grandly self-absorbed killer, refining his tortuous techniques so as to produce peculiar pleasures — for him, of course, but also for the rest of us. The fact that he is so blandly and blatantly horrific inspires some useful questions about the pleasures Hannibal fans take in the Hopkins version. While the latter’s perversions tend to be regarded as charismatic, the young Hannibal is decidedly un-enchanting, taunting one victim as he leaves him to drown in a corpses’ vat at the hospital, delivering “justice” to another who begs for mercy on account of his cute little children (Hannibal doesn’t pause to consider the effects of their daddy’s death by a knife through the head on these kids, but his own trajectory suggests repercussions are likely).
When at last Murasaki begs Hannibal to stop, he cannot. He insists that he is driven by memory, though he has to do some work to recover details — not only the sister-eater’s names, but also, the specific chronology of her death. “Memory is a knife,” warns Murasaki, who lost family in Hiroshima. “It can hurt you.” You can only hope the image of the doglike Hannibal, ripping at a victim’s cheeks, fades soon.