The Silence of the Lambs
Produced by Kenneth Ull, Edward Saxon, and Ron Bozman
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Written by Ted Talley
From the novel by Thomas Harris
Released by Orion

Open Doors
Produced by Angelo Rizzoli
Directed by Gianni Amelio
Written by Vicenzo Cerami and Mr. Amelio
From the novel by Leonardo Sciascia
Released by Orion Classics

Honesty in movie-reviewing is a giddy business, which is what I suppose Robert Warshow meant when he wrote that the most difficult thing a movie critic has to do is “admit he was there.” What do you do when you catch yourself liking some obviously contrived and even stupid piece of kitch? How do you convey accurately the kitchiness that was also, in its dopey or manipulative way, engaging and effective? Even more awkwardly, what do you do if you find yourself wool-gathering, even dreaming, having dozed off for a bit? Do you go ahead and review your dreams?

Just short of that absurd extremity is the response required by the kind of movie that plays to basic assumptions that may never actually be specified but that are obviously in operation. If the appeal of the movie depends on some kind of mythopoetic engineering, it can be important to try to make explicit and coherent these peculiar assumptions, not necessarily because the excellence of the film requires such analysis, but because the commercial success of the enterprise suggests that the guesses of the producer, director, and screenwriter were, this time at least, shrewd and correct. There is an authority if not an eternal truth to these bizarre soundings of the popular mind. Money talks, and tens of millions of dollars may have something important to tell us.

All of this is prefatory to—and a kind of apology for—my discussion of The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme’s silly but successful horror film with Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster. It is hardly an estimable achievement in cinema—and isn’t trying to be. Down-and-dirty, it flirts with sleaze and flaunts its gore. For a certain kind of knowledgeable cineaste, there is even a little in-joke in Roger Gorman’s cameo appearance as the director of the FBI, Gorman being the old schlock-meister whose films provided modest employment for Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Vincent Price at the end of their careers in a series of American-International cheap-jack pastiches of Poe. But these sly nods to the cognoscenti are not reassuring. All they mean is that the basic appeal of the movie is strong enough and crude enough to allow for a few random gestures of self-consciousness (or apology or denial). We must not allow ourselves to be distracted by artsy embellishment.

The story is a curious one. Jodie Foster is Clarice Starling, the not-quite-yet Special Agent of the FBI (she’s still in training) dispatched to interview Anthony Hopkins (Hannibal Lector, M.D., or “Hannibal the Cannibal”—he’s a brilliant psychoanalyst who is now himself confined in an exquisitely medieval institution for the criminally insane because he is a serial killer who eats his victims). The object of this interview is for the pretty young Starling to enlist the wicked doctor’s aid in the apprehension of yet another serial killer presently on the loose who has been flaying large young women in order to sew himself a dress made of their skins.

None of this bloody business is quite serious. There is an occasional frisson of cheery disgust when one maniac or the other cuts up a bit, but what we notice is Hopkins’s performance—so suave, polished, and sophisticated as to be endearing. And that’s what is supposed to strike terror into the hearts of the audience and impress them as evil. Never mind that he eats people, corpses or morsels he can snap from a living but occasionally unwary guard; what’s sinister is that he plays Bach inventions on his cassette recorder and has copies of Poetry lying around in his cell—along with recent issues of Bon Appétit. He is able to do a detailed drawing of the duomo of Florence from memory—and it is his talent, taste, and refinement that set him apart and, therefore, make him a monster. He is not accidentally named—he is “Lector,” the man who knows how to read! Intellectuals are bad people, then? Cannibals ravening off the rest of us? Precisely so.

The declension is from Sherlock Holmes, with whom we used to identify (as opposed to Lestrade, that contemptible bureaucratic oaf), to the innocent, not-quite-dry-behind-the-ears trainee, Foster’s Starling, the helpless and drab little bird who is our stand-in now and is forced to abase herself in not-so-subtle ways because she needs the help of the dangerous but warped mind on the other side of the protective glass.

Dr. Lector is able to categorize Starling at once, and we are almost as startled as she when he announces that she has a good bag but cheap shoes and observes that her accent is not yet sufficiently erased to disguise her origin in some coal-mining town in West Virginia. He can sniff the air and announce that she sometimes wears L’Air du Temps, “but not today.” This patina of civility and cultivation only makes Lector’s savagery more impressive and more frightening—and the unspoken message that animates the jumbled and fitfully plotted movie is that intellectual achievement is suspicious per se. Dr. Frankenstein no longer needs a monster, having become himself the sufficient vehicle of the public’s resentments, loathings, and fears.

The bizarre ending of The Silence of the Lambs, which seems to have been the compromise result of a great many conferences, is one in which, after a suitably balletic chase and fight sequence, Jodie Foster blows away one serial killer. But then, as she graduates from the FBI academy, she gets a phone call from the other, Hannibal—who is at large and about to pounce on his next victim (also a psychiatrist!). It’s a complicated business in which a) those damned intellectuals get off every time, don’t they?, but b) we’re kind of pleased because, aside from his one deplorable eccentricity, Hopkins is such an amiable fellow, and c) his next victim is a psychiatrist too, meaning one of those cerebral types who are obviously expendable. That this is the moral resolution, our conventional happy ending, is somewhat unsettling for what it suggests about the conventions and where they have taken us in these last days of the millennium.

In this connection, I think of Flatliners, last year’s slick little horror caprice in which a bunch of medical students experiment on one another, making small tourist excursions into death’s Magic Kingdom. Eschatology is an area of inquiry perhaps more susceptible to vulgarization than any other, and the Flatliners version is more or less predictable and moralistic. These youngsters are haunted by their misdeeds and use their moments in the Great F/X Beyond to understand and try to repair the wrongs they’ve committed—upon others or even upon themselves. There are probably two assumptions operating here, the first being that young doctors can’t possibly know enough to understand the moral and spiritual implications of what they’re doing. This is probably true, and to some degree it then follows that all medical students are more or less in Dr. Frankenstein’s position—operating out of their depth and trusting to their luck in an unreliably benevolent and sometimes unforgiving universe. The charm of these youngsters—Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, and such scrubbed and wholesome types—therefore becomes slightly ominous and scary.

The second set of postulates of that film is rather less specific but perhaps worth indicating—about the moral calculus that governs the universe. My own guess is that all popular culture involves outdated assumptions—stylistic, epistemological, metaphysical, and moral—from the high culture of the previous generation. Popular novels are more or less revivifications of Galsworthy and Wells; ballets in commercial musicals are Agnes de Mille restorations; even the watercolors in motels are imitations of last-gasp school-of-Paris impressionism. The late 19th century’s suspicion of science and its corollary nostalgic assertions of theistic moralism have trickled further down and survive in such works as this. The choice is whether to play for laughs—as Albert Brooks does in Defending Your Life—or to try for something less intentionally funny. In either event, the afterworld is some conflation of Vergil and Dante with the more accessible fantasies of Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker. For the rubes and boobs, it passes as authentic, while the rest of us can take it as camp.

Altogether different in its attitudes about life and death is Open Doors, an extremely intelligent, rather restrained, darkly brooding film about Sicilian justice under the fascists in 1937. There is no need to devote time or effort to establishing the corruption of the moral and legal climate. Against that dismal and distressing background—which isn’t merely intellectual but which we confront in the arid Sicilian countryside and the tacky extravagance of Palermo’s architecture;—the fervor of an individual juror and, even more interesting, the fussiness of an individual judge break through the murk to search out something that looks very much like truth, or justice, or even wisdom. The three brutal murders with which the film commences are explained, revealed, illuminated to the point where we can understand how Tommaso Scalia (Ennio Fantastichini) is as much a victim as those he has killed. And if the juror (Renato Carpentieri) and judge (Renzo Giovampietro) try in their different ways and for their different reasons to save the life of Scalia, their efforts finally come to nothing, because Sicily is no place either for the naive idealism of the one or the sophisticated punctilio of the other. Or Europe, or the world, for that matter.

It is a stately, stark but beautiful film, and one of its minor achievements is the casual assumption it makes that virtue is, inevitably, rare, the extravagant and quixotic demonstration of individual souls. The mob is never virtuous, has no patience with the fine distinctions virtue often demands, and is generally crude, vulgar, imprecise—and therefore wrong. This is not a message large numbers of moviegoers are likely to welcome with great enthusiasm, but then it isn’t one many moviemakers try to deliver. The choice of time and place, though, suggests a background of utter moral chaos. The motive for Scalia’s murders is revenge—but it takes Judge Sanna and us a while to figure out what the affront had been. At first we assume it is only that he’d been fired from his bureaucratic job (he’d been stealing, but then so had everyone else). But while this might explain the first two killings—of the man who now sits at his old desk, and of the chef de bureau who had been his superior—the third murder, of his wife, Rosa, is hard to account for without delving further. And whatever his reasons may have been, the defendant is unwilling to talk about them.

The persistent inquiry on the part of the judge seems, at first, almost silly—we’ve seen the murders, after all, witnessed them in their blunt and dreadful brutality. What possible difference could it make about what was going on in Scalia’s mind? But it does make a world of difference, and there is a kind of cleansing that we feel when the decision is reached not to execute a death sentence upon the condemned man. The news is delivered to him in the exercise yard of the prison where he is confined and, in a short scene of powerful understatement, Fantastichini takes a crust of bread from the pocket of his prison uniform and eats it. Life has been affirmed and humanity has been asserted.

In Sicily? In 1937? It can’t last, and it doesn’t. But that outcome has to do, I rather think, with the vision of the late Leonardo Sciascia, that extraordinary writer from whose novel this film was adapted. Sciascia is both saddened by and proud of life in Sicily. Sicilians behave badly, and it isn’t because they don’t know any better; what is tragic is that they do. They do know better. We all do, which makes our failures all the more heartbreaking and all the more deplorable.