Film: Time on the Cross

I don’t believe in God, but I definitely believe in icons,” a famous choreographer once told me. So does Hollywood. Take Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, the third installment in the continuing saga of Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, the psychiatrist-turned-serial-killer who “eats the rude” as part of his private campaign to elevate America’s aesthetic tone.

As the film slouches toward its climax, Dr. Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) finds himself in the hands of Mason Verger (Gary Oldham), a revenge- crazed billionaire who proposes to feed him to a barnful of wild boars, inch by inch. To this messy end, Verger has his henchmen strap Lecter onto a frame that twists his body into a caricature of the crucifixion, an image poached from Tim Robbins’s Dead Man Walking, though that film at least goes to the trouble of supplying a nominally religious context for the appropriation of Christianity’s best-known symbol.

Watching Hannibal, one would never suspect that Thomas Harris, author of the novel on which this awful movie is based, is a man much concerned with matters of the spirit. Not that he is a godly man. In fact, Harris appears to be one of those peculiarly unhappy unbelievers who affect to think God evil, a theme to which he returns time and again in his books. “God’s choices in inflicting suffering are not satisfactory to us, nor are they understandable, unless innocence offends Him,” he intones at one point in the book version of Hannibal. “Clearly he needs some help in directing the blind fury with which He flogs the earth.” (Not coincidentally, Harris is a native of Mississippi, and judging by various hints scattered throughout the three novels he has written to date about Dr. Lecter, he was raised in the home-spun evangelical Protestantism indigenous to Flannery O’Connorland, a fact that might account for his shaky grasp of such elementary theological concepts as the problem of pain.)

Unlike The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon, Hannibal is not a good book. It is, in fact, pretentious to the point of unintended comedy, but it is perfectly serious in its interweaving of the twin themes of religion and serial murder. Obsessed by the question of how to live morally in a godless world, Harris uses Dr. Lecter to embody one extreme answer, the one supplied by Dostoyevsky when he warned in The Brothers Karamazov that if there is no God, then everything is lawful, even cannibalism. Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore), the FBI agent who pursues the vicious doctor, thinks otherwise, but she is also a disillusioned skeptic who has turned her back on the rural Protestantism of her hardscrabble youth. When she meets the cultured Dr. Lecter, a polyglot connoisseur of Italian art and baroque music, her moral compass is severely skewed by the fact that so elegant a gent should turn out to have a taste for human flesh.

All this spiritual baggage was tossed over the side by the cynical makers of the film version of Hannibal, which appears to have been aimed at the stupid-teen audience. (A dumbed-down version of a blockbuster novel—what could be more characteristic of Hollywood?) As in the book, Dr. Lecter is made to quote Dante and tinkle away at Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” on his antique piano, but his religious interests (so to speak) are snipped out as deftly as a swollen tonsil by David Mamet and Steve Zaillian, who wrote the elephantine screenplay.

Why, then, did director Ridley Scott insist on strapping his antihero to a pseudo-cross? My guess is that like my choreographer friend, Scott knows that even at this late date in the decline of the West, Christianity and its symbols, however diminished, remain central to what is left of our common culture. Virtually everyone in the Western world recognizes them and feels their primal tug, however unwillingly or uncomprehendingly. Throwing a mock crucifixion into a highbrow slasher flick is thus a surefire way of upping the emotional ante, even among those sophisticates who never speak of religion other than with a sneer.

To be sure, even the grossest of blasphemies may signal the possible presence of grace: Rarely do men squander their contempt on that which they think is meaningless. Robert K. Johnston, the author of Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Baker, 2000), understands this paradox, though he is sometimes a bit sanguine about it. Johnston is a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, a center of earnest Protestant moderation in Pasadena, California, and he is much exercised, in his moderate Protestant fashion, about the shrinking role of Christianity in contemporary American life: “Currently, the church risks irrelevancy without its walls and complacency within. We have boxed in God and the results are proving disastrous. New eyes are called for as we attempt to see God anew.” To this end, he teaches his students “how God might be using film to reveal something of the divine to us,” and his new book, in which he discusses the religious implications of such popular films as Forrest Gump and The Truman Show, is an attempt to “enter into the conversation with Hollywood in a way that goes beyond bumper stickers and sloganeering!’

Johnston is no great shakes as a stylist (this is the sort of critical study that contains charts), and he is inclined to see good where it isn’t, but he is very interesting when he writes about the experience of “hearing God through non-Christians.” Far too many unimpeachably pious folk have a painfully limited understanding of how God speaks through secular art, especially art that realistically portrays post- modernity in all its terrible emptiness. More than likely, the only thing He is saying in Hannibal is “Go thou and watch some other movie but the most morally eloquent film I’ve seen so far this year was a coal-black not-quite-comedy in which not a single character has a single thing to say, good or bad, about religion.

Panic, Henry Bromell’s first film, is the story of Alex (William H. Macy), a melancholy family man who falls in love with Sarah (Neve Campbell), a bisexual teenage temptress whom he meets in the waiting room of his psychotherapist (John Ritter). As if that weren’t more than enough of a midlife crisis for one man to handle, it seems that Alex is having troubles with Michael (Donald Sutherland), his boss, who is also his father. This is where the not-quite-comedy comes in, for Alex and his father are hit men, and Michael decides that it is time to indoctrinate his young grandson (David Dorfman) into the family business at the precise moment when Alex decides he wants to get out of it. What sounds in the telling like a lazy cross between American Beauty and Analyze This turns out to be a powerful, perfectly cast study of what happens to ordinary middle-class Americans when the signposts of morality are removed from their comfortable lives, peopled with desperately sad characters and “funny” only in the flinty exactitude of its social observation.

If you haven’t heard about Panic, you’re not alone; a half-witted focus group turned thumbs down on the film, scaring the distributors into releasing it directly to cable TV. Thanks mainly to the persistence of critic Roger Ebert, who saw it at the Sundance Film Festival and started talking it up, Panic was given a brief theatrical run in January, and much to my good fortune, I caught it a couple of days before it closed in New York. Modest in scope and compact in scale (it is just 88 minutes long), Panic is one of the half-dozen best independent movies I have seen in the past decade, just as good as Next Stop Wonderland or Croupier. Presumably it will surface on video shortly, at which point you should rush to rent it.

You may also want to take a look at the recently reissued version of Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, the film that turned the Beatles into movie stars. I saw it as a boy, but I’d forgotten how charming it was: John, Paul, George, and Ringo were still the mop-topped idols of every prepubescent girl in England and America in 1964, and Lester makes sweetly endearing fun of their celebrity. How strange to think that there was a time well within memory when rock and roll was still innocent.


  • Terry Teachout

    Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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