Hannibal (2001): English filmmaker Ridley Scott's psychological thriller with a strong intellectual appeal

A masterwork richer than The Silence of the Lambs

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews 

Hannibal, Directed by Ridley Scott, starring Julianne Moore, Anthony Hopkins
Hannibal (2001)- By Ridley Scott
Our Rating: 9.0
IMDb Ratings: 6.6
GenreCrime  | Drama  |  Thriller
CastAnthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman
Country: UK USA
Language: English | Italian | Japanese
Runtime: 131 min
ColorColor (Technicolor)

Summary: Hannibal returns to America and attempts to make contact with disgraced Agent Starling and survive a vengeful victim's plan.
Hannibal is a 2001 psychological thriller directed by renowned English filmmaker Ridley Scott. Hannibal, an adaptation of the 1999 novel of the same name—third in the “Hannibal Lecter" series—by Thomas Harris, is the much awaited sequel to the highly acclaimed 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs, directed by Jonathan Demme. While Anthony Hopkins reprises his role of Hannibal “the cannibal” Lecter, the part of FBI special agent Clarice Starling is played by Julianne Moore. Hannibal opened to mixed reviews, drawing more flak than praise. But, why did Hannibal fail to match the success of its precursor? Was it the absence of Jonathan Demme or Jodie Foster? Or was it Anthony Hopkins who failed to recreate the magic? Was the movie a bit too shallow, or perhaps a bit too complex for the liking of the audience? Did Ridley Scott fail to match the high standards set by Demme? But, Ridley Scott has always been a more accomplished filmmaker than Jonathan Demme. Those who have watched his popular works like Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), or Gladiator (2000) would agree. The purpose of this article is to dissect Hannibal and try and find answers to all the above questions and more. But, first it’s essential to throw some light on the movie’s plot.

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal "the cannibal" Lecter, holding a razor to kill inspector Pazzi in the Capponi Library, Directed by Ridley Scott
Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in Ridley Scott's Hannibal
The story of Hannibal picks up ten years after the events depicted in The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling, now an FBI veteran, heads over a drug raid to capture the notorious Evelda Drumgo—an HIV-positive drug dealer whom Starling had arrested on previous two occasions. Seeing that Evelda is carrying her baby, Starling orders to call off the raid but in spite of her instructions one of the officers leading the raid charges ahead precipitating a shootout. Things go haywire as Starling is left with no option but to shoot Evelda (with her baby held in a carrier across her chest) in self-defense. Five people are killed during the incident including an officer. Starling is unjustly blamed for the macabre incident by Justice Department official Paul Krendler (Ray Loitta) who has been holding a grudge against her even since she had rejected his sexual advances a few years prior to the incident. Starling is publicly disgraced and is reprimanded but is reprieved thanks to the intervention of Mason Verger (Gary Oldman). Verger is the only surviving victim of Hannibal Lecter. His encounter with Lecter had left him horrifically disfigured and paralyzed. The sole purpose of Verger’s life is to exact a revenge against his malefactor. Lecter had punished Verger for his pedophilic behavior in his own characteristic fashion. Verger, a wealthy businessman, enjoys a strong political clout which he uses from time to time for personal and professional favors. Verger bails out Starling because he feels that she could come handy in helping him trace Lecter.

Julianne Moore as Clarice Starling, Hannibal, Directed by Ridley Scott
Julianne Moore as Clarice Starling in Hannibal
Meanwhile, Lecter comes to know about Starling’s plight and decides to write her a letter. Lecter now resides in Florence, Italy where he operates under the alias Dr. Fell. Following the mysterious disappearance of the curator of the Capponi Library, Dr. Fell seems to have positioned himself well to become the next curator. But, Chief Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi of the Questura who is investigating the case grows suspicious of Dr. Fell. He soon learns that Dr. Fell is none other than Hannibal Lecter. He also comes to know about the huge reward that Verger has promised to pay anyone who helps him capture Lecter alive. But, before Pazzi could execute his plan, he is brutally murdered by Lecter. Lecter flees from the scene and subsequently returns to the United States. Lecter has always been fascinated by Starling’s sense of pride and her righteousness. Her fortitude reminds him of his own courage that has allowed him to face the endless adversities of the world. On his return to the US, Lecter tries to renew his acquaintance with Starling but before he could do that he must first thwart Mason Verger’s evil plan. As Starling is surrounded by demons, both from her past as well as present, she too must up the ante in order to prove her loyalty to the FBI, once and for all.

Gary Oldman as the horifically disfigured Mason Verger, only surviving victim of Dr. Lecter, Hannibal, Directed by Ridley Scott
Gary Oldman as the horifically disfigured Mason Verger
In Hannibal, the team of Ridley Scott and David Mamet (movie's screenplay writer) offer a plot that’s much thicker than Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, characters that have a much greater depth, motifs that surpass the usual realm of a typical Hollywood Thriller (where entertainment is usually limited to the acting and story). While Demme’s Starling is a cold, calculated professional who operates with a kind of mechanical precision, Scott’s Starling has a lot more to offer. She is consciously aware of her sexuality and has an air of fallibility that Demme’s Starling is completely devoid of. Demme’s Lecter is essentially a boogeyman, but Scott’s Lecter is much more than a coldblooded psychotic genius with a taste for human flesh. He is not devoid of human emotions and is capable of compassion and perhaps even love. Demme’s film which was at best was a psychological thriller pales in compassion to Scott’s work which has added elements of philosophy (the Judas syndrome in human relationships: Verger says to Starling, “you are not afraid of my face but you were afraid when I spoke of God”), literature (Dante’s Divine Comedy), and music (the composer Hans Zimmer uses Dante's sonnet, Strauss's The Blue Danube, and Patrick Cassidy at different points in the movie). As a matter of fact, music forms an integral part of Scott’s films. Scott says of music, “It is the final adjustment to the screenplay, being able to also adjust the performance of the actors in fact.” The movie also has an undercurrent of dark humor which is most evident during some of the graphic killing sequences depicted in the movie.

Giancarlo Giannini as Rinaldo Pazzi accompanied by wife Allegra Pazzi (played by Francesca Neri), Hannibal, Directed by Ridley Scott
Giancarlo Giannini (Left) as Rinaldo Pazzi in Hannibal
Scott and Mamet present an unusual take on the classical theme of “Beauty and the Beast” wherein a heinous murderer opens up another man’s skull merely to teach him a lesson in propriety (especially on how to treat women) and even goes to the extent of chopping off his own limb for someone he likes enough not to hurt. Hannibal’s greatest undoing is that it has a considerably large repertoire of sequences that can be deemed graphic which makes it appear gruesome, even in comparison to The Silence of the Lambs. But unlike the likes of Saw (2004) or Hostel (2005), there's is a certain element of grace with which these scenes are carried out that elevates the movie in the direction of art. The masses are repulsed by such an outrage of gore and violence, but they are troubled even more by the complexities that one often associates with art. An average viewer is not generally wooed by elements of psychology, philosophy, music or literature, for they have a tendency to be spoon-fed and are easily put off by a filmmaker who tries to test them in any manner.

Anthony Hopkin as Hannibal Lecter, Julianne Moore as Clarice Starling, Lecter intimidates to eat Starling, Hannibal, Directed by Ridley Scott
Anthony Hopkins and Julianne Moore in Hannibal
Perhaps, it’s for this reason that Scott’s simplistic works like Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator are ubiquitously acclaimed while his most mature work by far, “The Duellists” still remains little known. Scott and Mamet chose to alter the ending of Hannibal (from that offered in the novel). They must have noticed the balance of the movie shifting towards the art side. The novel’s ending is clearly more satisfying wherein Lecter and Starling end up as lovers. It obviously would have been too bold an ending to depict in the movie (a once brave and dedicated female FBI officer losing her faith in the system and choosing to defect). It would have badly hurt the patriotic sentiments of most Americans. But even Hopkins seems to have favored the novel’s ending. When asked in an interview on the subject of whether or not he believed the idea of Starling and Lecter ending up as lovers, Hopkins said, “Yes, I did. Other people found that preposterous. I suppose there's a moral issue there. I think it would have been very interesting had she gone off, because I suspected that there was that romance, attachment there, that obsession with her.

Hannibal Lecter holds the unconscious Clarice Starling in his arms, wearing the infamous Lecter mask, Hannibal, Directed by Ridley Scott
A Still from Ridley Scott's Hannibal
Overall, Hannibal is a formidable work of cinema that definitely deserves more attention that it has got over the last decade. Hannibal is quite rich in its depiction of philosophy, psychology, literature and music, and perhaps that’s what elevates it above the league of typical Hollywood-like, run-of-the-mill thrillers. While the movie is not limited to acting, it surely is one of the strongest points of the movie. Julianne Moore is alluring in the role of Clarice Starling and plays the part with delicate precision. Anthony Hopkins is absolutely breathtaking in the role of Hannibal Lecter. His Florence scenes are an absolute treat to watch. The ease and flowery elegance with which the verses of Dante’s first sonnet pour out of his mouth is simply awe-inspiring. The aplomb with which Hopkins delivers the scene in which Dr. Fell is required to present a lecture on Dante’s version of Judas’ avarice to the audience in the Capponi Library is the mark of a performer working at the height of his power. Moore and Hopkins are offered great support by the rest of the cast which includes likes of Gary Oldman, Lay Loitta and the renowned Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini who is brilliant in the role of Chief Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi. Hannibal is equally brilliant on the technical front. The sublime use of special effects deployed to film the brain-eating scene testifies the very fact. Hannibal may easily unsettle a casual viewer, but a keen eyed viewer who is willing to indulge himself will be able savor it at different levels. Highly recommend!

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!  


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  1. Fantastic review. I thought this since I saw Hannibal the first time.

  2. The movie is indeed brilliant... glad you liked the review!!!


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