Monthly column from author/activist
David Steinberg

Comes Naturally #107

Hannibal Lecter, Good, Evil,
and the Yearning for Integrity

"What Bush figured out -- that all of us had been missing all these years -- is how easy it is to hornswoggle liberals.... What George Bush figured out is that all you have to do is go around calling yourself nice."

-- Conservative political commentator Ann Coulter

There's something about Hannibal Lecter.

Everybody, it seems, is long overdue for a fresh dose of the horrible serial killer with the brilliant mind and unpredictable heart. Ridley Scott's no-holds-barred Hannibal, ten-years-later sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, grossed $23.5 million on its first day of release. That's the fifth highest one-day gross of all time, outdone only by two days of Star Wars and two days of Jurassic Park. After only nine days, the film had grossed over $100 million, the seventh fastest film to reach that marker.

All this while most reviewers are having a field day panning the film as an empty-headed, gore-for-gore's-sake, worthless follow-up to the film that claimed five Oscars and became feathers in the caps of both Jodie Foster's and Anthony Hopkins's careers. Both Foster and Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme, we are told righteously, had "too much class" to associate themselves with this artless, over-the-top gross-out -- a film, viewers are warned by nearly every critic, it is best to see on an empty stomach.

Well, I'm no fan of slasher films, but I'm here to say proudly that I've contributed sixteen bucks over two viewings toward that $100 million total, and I might even go back to see Hannibal one more time before I'm done. I really love this film -- even more than I loved Silence of the Lambs, which was no small affection. I love the idea of Hannibal Lecter. I love the idea of the crazy pervert who is smarter and has more integrity than all the self-righteous people around him laying proud claim to superior sanity. For once, according to the box office figures, there seems to be plenty of company for my admittedly Sadeian aesthetic.

Don't let the gore-glare preoccupation of distracted reviewers blind you to this film. Bloody murders aside, Hannibal is a truly beautiful, aesthetically and emotionally well-crafted and eminently satisfying film. It is, most fundamentally, neither a horror film nor a thriller, but an achingly tender, almost sappy, celebration of the purity of improbable love in a world gone mad. It is also a philosophically wise, religiously ornate treatise on how things are rarely what they appear to be -- especially when it comes to matters of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, integrity and betrayal. In this dawning era of social malice sanctified because it is delivered with a deceptively compassionate smile, the distinction between the real ethics of compassion and justice and the false trappings of pious moralism is one we should all keep carefully in mind.

Now, let me be completely clear here before someone goes to see Hannibal and sends me a dry cleaner's bill for the clothes they were wearing. There are plenty of scenes in Hannibal that are loaded up with blood and gore, not to mention a variety of other, more conceptual, challenges to polite sensibilities. Take cannibalism, for example. Some people are shocked that plane crash victims stranded and starving to death in the Andes actually were able to eat the flesh of a dead fellow passenger to survive. To me, that seems like the obvious thing to do in an extreme circumstance. Call me callous, or just sensible. Anyway, if you're the sort of person who's easily undone by these sorts of things, or by the sight of blood (however artfully arranged) on Julianne Moore's lovely neck, you definitely should keep away from this film.

For all its blood and guts, though, there's almost no emotional nastiness in Hannibal, and none of the creepy, sadistic cruelty that is the emotional stock and trade of most horror and action films. There aren't even many jolts of shock surprise -- the kind of thing where the killer jumps out of the shadows and says boo and gets all the tender girls to leap for the safety of their boyfriends' strong arms. If you can just let all the viscera float on by, and maybe even allow yourself to get a chuckle or two out of the way certain circumstances play themselves out, you'll be free to enjoy the elegiac beauty and impeccable, if ironic, emotional authenticity that is the film's subtext. Think of being taken on an elegant tour of the palaces and piazzas of Florence in all their majestic glory. Think of listening to soaring lines of Italian opera in an outdoor theatre lit by flaming torches. Think of the triumph of love, intellect, and personal integrity over greed, pretense, and self-righteousness.

It's all a matter of point of view. If you come to Hannibal from this perspective, I dare say you'll be almost certainly to go home with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.

So what is it about Hannibal Lecter that so many people find so appealing, and that so many commentators seem to not notice at all? To the drones of the FBI and their spiritual kin, we are dealing with "lethal madman Hannibal Lecter" -- no more, no less. But the complex character portrayed so deliciously in Silence of the Lambs and developed even more amiably in Hannibal has an appeal that goes beyond a simple, inevitable fascination with the most disgusting murderer imaginable.

What's so fascinating about Lecter is not how horrible he is, but how horrible he isn't, given that he does such horrible things. Truly Lecter is a man of principle, even if his principles aren't the ones we've been taught to respect and honor. Lecter stands outside the Protestant moral paradigm as proudly as FBI agent Clarice Starling grounds herself precisely within that view of the world. Starling believes that living by the rules of right order leads to being justly rewarded, and ultimately to the Kingdom of Heaven. "If you do right, you'll live through this," she tells Lecter at one point. Lecter has no illusion that right action will be appreciated and rewarded in this corrupt world. This allows him to nonchalantly murder people who do him wrong, and to violate other conventional taboos (eating them, for example), but it does not make him the kind of crazed killer who goes around butchering people in acts of random and uncontrollable rage. Indeed, there is really no sense in either Hannibal or The Silence of the Lambs of Lecter being a troubled soul at all. He is instead in his own way, a man of honor. If he makes a promise, he will keep that promise. In the entire course of the film, he never says one dishonest word. "People rarely tell you what they think," he muses at one point. "I, on the other hand, too often say what I'm thinking." Indeed, he does.

Hannibal can smell betrayal from halfway around the world, but he values integrity and honesty as deeply as he detests deception and betrayal. In this way, he and Clarice are two of a kind. Indeed, the love binds Hannibal and Clarice to each other (that causes Lecter to, as he puts it "come out of retirement") comes from their intuitive sense -- uncomfortable for Clarice, delectable for Hannibal -- that they are as fundamentally alike as they are superficially opposite. Here are two people who are prepared to stay completely true to their values no matter where those values may lead them -- even unto death, imprisonment, ridicule, loss of career, or complete social ostracism.

Lecter is aware of how much he and Clarice are kindred spirits, and his romantic quest with her is to get her to see that it is he who is her true soulmate, not the false idol of her beloved FBI. As both her self-appointed psychiatrist and her self-appointed savior, Lecter is out to save both her psyche and her soul, although he is also wise enough to know that ultimately he will be able to save neither.

Still, it is his Sisyphean fate to confront her. The issue Clarice must confront on both a psychological and a spiritual level, he insists, is that of "the masters you serve and how they've treated you." He wants her to see that the FBI (the world of self-righteous, codified morality) is the representative not of law and order, but of hypocrisy and corruption.

"You fell in love with the Bureau," he challenges, "but it didn't love you back. You serve the idea of order; they don't. You believe in the oath you took; they don't. You want to protect the sheep; they don't. They are weak and cowardly, but you are courageous and strong."

It is I who understand you, Lecter insists, I who know what you really need, I who love you, I who will make sacrifices for you -- not the FBI. Again and again, he puts Clarice's principles to the test. Again and again, she remains loyal to her view of the world, even when it seems that he could easily kill (or eat) her as a result. Each time she reaffirms her Protestant values, Lecter loves her and her integrity even more. "That's my girl," he says admiringly, when she rejects his way out in their culminating confrontation. You put yourself through so much misery, he says with paternal understanding and affection, when "all you need to see your courage and incorruptibility is a mirror."

In the extended cast of players and counter-players in this tale of multi-layered intrigue, only Hannibal and Clarice are true to themselves and to their principles in this way. Hannibal is less the crazed killer than a god of vengeance, and what's not to love about the gentleman who sees to it that the nasty, slippery guys get what they deserve? Hannibal skillfully observes and then punishes the greed and duplicity that are directed at him from everyone but Clarice. The slide show lecture he delivers to a group of scholars connecting the themes of avarice, hanging, Judas Iscariot, and self-destruction in the Medieval world view aligns his role of avenging angel with the some of the deepest roots of Christian history.

Only Clarice accepts Hannibal as the ultimate master of the drama that has all the players in its thrall. She knows there is no way she can deceive or outsmart him, so she doesn't try. Instead, she puts her cards on the table and searches for a way to honestly define herself as his ally. She is, to be sure, as opposed to Hannibal as the others, but she is after him in the name of law, not malice. And her goal is to put him behind bars, not to kill or humiliate him. She acknowledges and honors who he is, and it is for this reason he accepts her as well.

It's all there in one big, grand movie: love story, passion play, philosophical treatise -- psychological, archetypal, and metaphysical drama. What could be more compelling in this time of plastic promises, insincere gestures, self-serving moralities, and simplistic responses to complex problems? And the entire package is delivered with the power and elegance, both visual and musical, appropriate to the scope of the tale. The haunting score produced by Hans Zimmer offers the most emotionally powerful sound track since "Amadeus," particularly the operatic "Vide Cor Meum" by Patrick Cassidy, the theme of the star-crossed lovers that reprises through much of the film. The cinematography of John Mathieson is equally lush, dark, and compelling.

Aren't we are all hungry, somewhere in our soul of souls, for something that is unquestionably real, unquestionably truthful, unquestionably authentic, no matter how bizarre the trappings? Isn't there something stirring in the grand collective unconscious that yearns for a reality that acknowledges (and honors) darkness as well as light, mystery as well as efficiency, as an antidote to the pastel charades that increasingly dominate everything from television to politics to our personal lives?

If that yearning sounds familiar, I suggest you risk your lunch and go see Hannibal. Put the blood and guts aside, enjoy the music, enjoy the scenery, enjoy the drama, enjoy the romance, enjoy the impish humor, and spend an afternoon or an evening nourishing the darker corners of your soul.

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