Hannibal Lecter’s Harrowing of Hell

Dante, not a cannibal.

Dante, not a cannibal.

Toward the end of Hannibal, the new sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, Sir Anthony Hopkins, in the title role, is wheeled on an upright gurney into the pit of a sunken livestock pen. Bound, with arms outstretched at right angles from his chest, his predicament is meant to call to mind the crucifixion, with two subtle differences: 1) He is an erudite cannibal rather than a rabblerousing rabbi; 2) He is about to be eaten by a pig.

At first glance, this scene seems little more than another instance of American cinema’s facile use of religious allusions and imagery. You know the drill: The Matrix dresses Keanu Reeves up like a eurotrash seminarian, calls him “Neo” and hopes we’ll buy him as the new New Adam. The Green Mile tells the story of death row inmate John Coffey (J.C., get it?): “Like the Lord, but spelled different,” he’s Jesus too. In a similar grab for ever-allusive “meaning,” The Beach kills off a character named Christoff for the sole purpose of pushing audiences to ponder, “Like, did that guy die for Leo’s sins?”

Nice try, but all it made me think was, Jesus Christ, enough already.

Don’t get me wrong. Film is a perfectly appropriate medium for discussing religious ideas. When new scriptures enter the canons of the coming millennium, they most certainly will be made more of images than of text. Yet in the face of this grand cultural responsibility, Hollywood seems content to dress its products in rhinestone theology: plastic sentiments that sparkle in the right light but are not worth much in the end. Given the lightweight religiosity that rules the spiritual marketplace these days, all this God-flavored fluff comes as no surprise.

And now we have the crucifixion of Hannibal Lecter.

Generally a serial killer on a cross would seem the height of banal irreverence: the kind of vague biblical reference befitting an audience with vague knowledge of the Bible. A closer look at Hannibal, however, suggests there is something truly interesting happening here; that, finally, a religiously significant statement has been made in Hollywood’s blockbuster vernacular.

Yes, with fear and trembling I report that a movie in which we see brains eaten, skullcaps removed, and various Italians stabbed, hanged, and disemboweled does offer something other than theological costume jewelry. Not diamonds perhaps, but certainly a few pearls. Pity that widespread obsession with Hannibal’s gore suggests that its themes have been cast before swine.

Which brings us back to the pig pit. When FBI agent Clarice Starling happens on the scene, three armed and burly Tuscans surround the man condemned to die. She sees what we see, her eyes are ours: Even on his cross, there is nothing particularly Christ-like about the good Dr. Lecter. Nothing particularly anti-Christ-like either, despite his homicidal hobbies, so the argument that this scene is a meaningful perversion holds up about as well as new wine in an old skin.

What then to make of Lecter’s Passion? Jesus said the Kingdom of God is like a treasure buried in a field. The same could be said for the theological meaning of Hannibal, hidden as it is under a mound of bodies. To get to it, that is, bring your shovel. You’ve got to dig.

X marks the spot in Florence, where Hannibal makes his first appearance of the film. Since we saw him last, he has been hiding out as a Dante scholar in Dante’s city. He is an expert, we soon learn, not only on The Divine Comedy, but also on the earlier work La Vita Nuova, “The New Life,” in which Dante first explored the relationship between human love and religious transcendence. It is here the poet introduces Beatrice, the lost love who in Paradiso, the third book of the Comedy, will shuttle him into the presence of the divine.

Surface references to both works abound: A long-suffering Florentine cop hell-bent on Hannibal’s capture happens to be a descendent of the de’ Pazzi family whom Dante finds in Inferno‘s ninth circle of hell. And when Hannibal meets the cop’s wife, he presents her with, what else, a page from La Vita Nuova which depicts the eating of a human heart as a metaphor for the consuming power of love.

There are enough in-jokes to keep a scholar happy throughout, and they fit so seamlessly into the plot that the rest of us are not made to feel like morons. But none of that really matters. From clues unearthed in Florence, all you need to learn is that Hannibal is, believe it or not, a film as much about Dante as serial murder.

And as for Dante, all you need to know is this: In his cosmology, the soul moves and its way is rough. It is able to attain the lofty yet more likely to reach the base. In Paradiso, Beatrice shows Dante God at the heights of love. In Inferno, the poet Virgil shows him the Beast in the depths of depravity. The primary relationship in each is one of agency: Through Virgil, Dante fathoms and escapes from the pit of hell; through Beatrice, he moves beyond earthly hungers, to paradise.

In Hannibal it is as though these two texts are being read simultaneously — or rather, antiphonally, the one answering the other. Chasing Lecter, following him as Dante does Virgil, Starling is led downward; she is made an observer of ever darker levels of sin and its ever higher price. Meanwhile, chasing Starling (it is for her he returns from his exile in Florence), Hannibal is somehow elevated. Not purified, not rehabilitated, certainly not saved, and yet a transformation does somehow occur; something has begun. Yes, yes, in the end he’s still a cannibal, but the hard fact of salvation is that if it’s not available to all, it’s available to none. If Hannibal can’t be saved than neither can Starling, neither can Dante, and neither can you.

Back in the livestock pen, Hannibal is waiting while Starling looks on. Behind a slatted gate, a pack of man-eating boars slobber and squeal, the smell of human flesh already in their considerable snouts. Soon the eater will be eaten. Moved by duty to the law, or perhaps by perverse attachment, Starling cuts him from his cross. Bullets fly, the beasts rush into the pit, and suddenly it is Starling who needs saving. Lifting her from the ground, Hannibal stands in the chaos and walks calmly from the horror that ensues. His tormentors are left to face the punishment they planned.

Christian legend tells of the “Harrowing of Hell” — Christ’s three-day raid on the realm of the dead, through which he rescued all the righteous souls unlucky enough to have been born before he was. From certain descent to improbable ascension, the Divine Comedy is a retelling of this defining story, and Hannibal is another. Taken from his cross, Hannibal does for Starling as Jesus did for Moses, as Virgil did for Dante. And each of these saviors, the further implication of the story goes, could do the same for you.

More than highbrow name-dropping, more than specious spiritualism, Hannibal is a necessary, modern elaboration on an ancient religious theme. When there no longer is an inferno to fear, no longer a paradise to pray for, we find ourselves in purgatorial times. Sin goes unpunished, virtue unrewarded; grace is hard to find. In such a landscape, what does it now mean to be saved? Who deserves to be? Whether or not you buy Hannibal‘s inquiry into the possibility that even a cannibal can attain the kind of “new life” Dante wrote about, you have to admire the probing courage of the question.

Or maybe you don’t. Maybe it’s better to reserve redemption for the sinless. Maybe it’s easier to look for Jesus only where he’s supposed to be. After all, even the apostles steered clear of the crucifixion. Salvation is messy, you see, and they couldn’t stand the sight of blood.

Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.