Yum bloody yum

Ridley Scott brings Dr. Lecter back for the main course.

Beauty hunts the Beast: Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore, Magnolia), 10 years after her graduation from the FBI training academy — and her extracurricular studies in homicidal psychosis under Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) — is still a beauty (Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” in SWAT gear). But she’s shed her postcollegiate baby fat with her girlish innocence; the dew is off her Appalachian rose.

As Starling psyches herself up to head a multiple-department takedown of a formidable narcotics kingpin (and single mother), her face is a pale mask betraying no trace of the girl who once gathered up a spring lamb into her arms and ran away from home to save it from slaughter. By the end of the day she’ll win the dubious — and career-threatening — distinction of entering The Guinness Book of World Records as the female FBI agent with the most kills. She looks as if she could be the daughter of her former tutor, Dr. Lecter.

Lecter, retired from what he euphemistically calls his “public life,” is still a beast, though one in Armani clothing. He now resides in Florence, Italy, the city he once drew from memory in crayon on butcher paper to decorate his cell, the city of those 15th century princes of commerce, the Medicis. He’s fashioned himself after them, living in ancient luxury in a library as its potential curate.

A police investigation headed by an inspector descended from the Medicis’ betrayers (the Pazzis) concerning the mysterious disappearance of Lecter’s predecessor, and Clarice’s public humiliation as an FBI scapegoat, inspire the doctor to come out of retirement, back into “public life.”

Hannibal is essentially an ironically grim variation on the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale. It’s a story of sacrifice and innocence lost and regained told as gruesomely as a Marquis de Sade novel. Entertaining, yet rich in symbols and allegory, it can be savored on more than one level.

Director Ridley Scott’s (Gladiator) sequel to Jonathan Demme’s more dialogue-driven Silence of the Lambs is a film of breathtaking action and horrors, a realm of the senses more than speech, and as baroque as the Bach that Dr. Lecter plays on his piano.

Hannibal is a macabre feast.

E-mail James Keith La Croix at [email protected].

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