Brain runner

I don't even want to know about the novel. Writer makes a fortune on Silence of the Lambs, spends 10 years coursing the world researching, writing and over-researching a sequel filled with snack facts and ornate erudition smacking of autodidactic compulsion. There's no flight long enough to get Thomas Harris's maniacally compacted prose into my carry-on.

But Hannibal — Hannibal the movie, Ridley Scott's succulent, epicurean rendition of his madman elegy — that's another story. Loving and hateful, luminously rendered, an examination of what love is forbidden, wrong, impossible, Hannibal is great for its contrariness alone.

Quickly made but not shabbily so, reaching theaters only months after the epic Gladiator, Scott's restless sequel leaps directly into the action, with FBI Special Agent Clarice Starling (this time Julianne Moore) caught in a shoot-out, soon to be botched. Earning a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the FBI agent who's shot the most people — the adaptation by David Mamet and Steven Zaillian has its good jokes and its bad ones — Starling returns to the loose ends of her most notorious case. Hannibal Lecter is still at large. The movie — the culture — admires the imperviousness of an evil genius. How can he know so much and not want slaughter?

"He preferred to eat the rude," a character says, "The free-range rude, he called them." Lecter stands for good manners, linen, a properly blocked hat, music well played, wine in the correct carafe. And his own rectitude: Once contact is reestablished, Lecter challenges Clarice for her "perfect grasp of right and wrong." Moore's Clarice is an elusive character, strong yet damaged, somehow taking on a more hard-scrabble look than Jodie Foster, but also harder and softer at moments. The difference in the two actresses' bone structure could account for some of it; the styles of acting, despite similar affected drawls, could not be more different. The continuing duel between the pair is heightened by the interference of an impossibly rich early victim of Lecter's, played by Gary Oldman under a web of scruffy latex.

Ordinarily, I see movies with a half dozen other writers at most: this screening room was packed, and I had to sit on the floor: solitaries clustered in the dark to cackle at Anthony Hopkins' curdled intonation of desiccated camp dialogue. Oldman's strangled lines retreated under a flashback to Lecter's gay past, and Hopkins' remarkably dry yet bizarre delivery of the line "Would-you-like-a-popper?"

Scott knows this is tricky rubbish, and with the help of editor Pietro Scalia (JFK, Good Will Hunting), things never pause. The story is implausible — operatic is the easy word for it. There is a pro forma tongue-in-cheek style to the characters' conflicts, not precisely camp. The plot ticks cleanly past — yes, there is a high point of detection, and there is a gross-out moment. But what seems a lush farrago of low key splatter is in fact as literary as literary adaptations get. Scott creates a world. Not only would you want to visit there, you could. Lacking Jonathan Demme's stiff self-righteousness, Scott's brilliant production design in scene after scene belies the moments of freakshow luxe.

Hannibal is a new edition of Blade Runner — contemporary Europe as ruin and hive. There is a section set in Florence where Giancarlo Giannini, wreathed in cigarette smoke and soft linen suits, plays a detective who joins in the hunt for Lecter. Scott's Florence is the most gorgeous depiction you'll see of a contemporary European city — Italy as splendid, elegant squalor. Blade Runner as the present. Forget Gladiator — let's keep Scott in our real and tangible world, watching the stage upon which we act.

There is a world and a world of art history at work. For instance, in Clarice's FBI basement office, there are screens tacked with gory evidence, arrayed like the leaves of a Di Vinci Codex. (To lower the level of reference, Clarice also doodles faces on a pad.) This is what big-budget filmmaking should be: grandiloquently beautiful rendering of grandiose pulp.

I am grateful just to watch Scott work his ingenious, vivacious eye. But Hannibal will be notorious for the last 10 minutes or so, primarily for a scene of baroque, clinical grotesquerie — let's call it vivisection of a living character — that is less effective than the final scene's cold legacy. The final 10 minutes are also replete with a Bu & ntilde;uel-like surrealist dollop of foot-and-Gucci pump fetishism. There's a woman in only a backless black slip of a cocktail dress (showing a recently scoured and red-stitched collarbone wound) and an escape to a boat straight out of Jean Vigo's 1934 L'Atalante, against a random backdrop of Fourth of July fireworks. These knowing nods to the history of surrealism on film will be lost on most audiences, who will measure the film for either want or surplus of gore, yet they mark Scott as the kind of artist who is not content merely to cash the check when Dino De Laurentiis and MGM come calling. He honors the text, however foolish it make be, glorifies the eye and revels in creating a surrealist provocation with tens of millions of borrowed dollars.