Ridley Scott’s “Hannibal”

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I like Ridley Scott, he is as uneven as everyone says, maybe the case of an artisan who thinks is an artist, a filmmaker whose stylistic affectations, often misguided, can be simultaneously terrible and fascinating, can destroy a movie but also generate interest where it wouldn’t exist with a more direct and modest craftsman. There are two modes in which he normally operates: (1) A heavy-handed director used to build his entire aesthetic around graphic design, who attempts to convey an interpretation of his themes in very stylized lighting, eccentric textures and scenography, with editing concerned more with rhythm and immediate effects than meaning, maintaining coherence in the presentation of such design but often subjugating the drama itself, sometimes at the cost of the necessary confidence in the interactions of people, it’s maybe the only case where I understand the ridiculous criticism of style over substance, both Alien and Gladiator are examples of this, to very distinct results. And (2) that kind of talented and modest craftsman dedicated to a text he believes in, that doesn’t need the common and excessive ornamentation to make the audience comprehend the ideas insinuated or explicitated in the script, one recent example of this side would be The Counselor. The problem is that Scott rarely finds a balance between both, and neither takes them to the extreme, in terms of pure imagistic experimentation and its conceptual results, like his brother Tony did, but when he achieves that equilibrium, we are rewarded with Blade Runner, the vastly underrated Black Rain, and this one, Hannibal.

In Hannibal, there are many points in which he nearly crosses the line to overindulgence, as in the sort of monotonous manner Giancarlo Giannini’s character is initially presented, it ends up serving a bigger purpose than simply alluding to a symbol, to a single significance of his actions, since his meeting with Hannibal after learning his true identity is a complete break from the behavior we have previously seen from the corrupt policeman, the subtle confrontation that occurs in the dialogue is not only enhanced, but given different meanings through the arrangement of the bodies, their positionings are delineated in an inquisitive way, accentuated by the distance between camera and actors when a more conventional coverage certainly would come closer while the conversation’s subdued tone fades away, it goes on the opposite direction, even the sudden light changes and contrasts are there to help substantiate the drama that is primarily observed in people and are not a superficial substitute for transformations we can not see. This is just one example but most of its scenes are constructed similarly, Scott’s approach ranges from lucid and perspicuous to almost completely cacophonous, like the pursuit in the shopping mall and the dinner scene, but these weirder moments are still controlled and always created in service of the characters, and not in spite of them.

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One aspect that makes Hannibal quite exceptional, and that should probably be credited to David Mamet’s initial involvement, is its structural concision and the acceptance of those figures as archetypical, preventing the subtextually charged material from becoming too literal on the screen, from overly psychologizing the procedures (as did Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs). Scott makes a clever choice in emphasizing the abundant references to the long Italian tradition in representations which blurry the line between horror, beauty and the grotesque, associating it with the narrative’s batshit grand guignol and occasional discussions of the philosophical or theological implications behind those prevailing images, in the entire city of Florence, as ignored as the people living in it (there is a moment in which a man is murdered in a crowded street, someone looks, but nobody stops, and the policeman can wash his bloody hands in public as if nothing happened, the subsequent killings, even of completely unimportant characters, are given the same unusual attention).

The lost interest in the underlying values of those works reflect a much larger problem, as all institutions are shown to be corrupt and lacking any ethical basis, maybe everyone, as the scenes mentioned above could suggest. Therefore, Giannini’s death scene is fundamental, not just cheap, gratuitous violence. A disemboweled body appears hanging from a balcony, a group of tourists immediately laugh at the incident, then screams are heard and a final shot of the square shows the bystanders perplexed with the view. Suddenly, the representations become a bewildering and horrendous spectacle in flesh and blood, and a forgotten, subconscious understanding of such problems clash into the surface.

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In America, the invasion of the modern world by these displaced and almost mythical expressions is even more overt. The same kind of acknowledgement is made in the neo-gothic figure of the villain and his surroundings, portrayed as a deformed monster living in a recluse castle, with faithful servants (the police included) to do the dirty work, in short, Dracula, while Hannibal fancies himself as some sort of savior (and yes, Christ imagery follows), an outlaw punisher who desires the incorruptible purity he sees in Clarice Starling. Their relationship is explicitly related to Beauty and the Beast, to Tristan and Isolde (Wagner’s overture is quoted on the soundtrack at the final encounter), thus, having a deranged love story between investigator and murderer told as a violent fairy tale at its center, it becomes easier to see the parallels with the gialli.

Hannibal‘s inheritance from Dante Alighieri is the same of Mario Bava, but it doesn’t mean Scott tries to simply emulate the Italian masters, which is impossible to anyone who takes the genre seriously, for they are essentially works of criticism. Bava, Sergio Martino, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci were all film/art critics, none of their best work should be considered mere reproduction, and I think Scott does something very close here, besides the clear awareness of their common aesthetic principles, which is probably what motivates the departure from his vices in other more stylized efforts, oriented by static and saturated images, as opposed to Hannibal‘s more harmonious movements, elegant camera work and gorgeous use of chiaroscuro lighting. And even Hans Zimmer’s main theme sounds like a nod to Goblin’s Suspiria.

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Hannibal must be the director’s greatest accomplishment since Blade Runner, and I hope it gets the same critical revaluation after the general dismissal of the film upon release. And to think that something this risky, an outright insane black comedy, constantly refusing to play safe, was put out as a blockbuster by a major studio, with big stars, and done by a director who is far from willing to take big chances most of the times, only 14 years ago… A production like this is unimaginable today, and that is really sad.

Christofer Pallú

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