Fava Beans and A Nice Chianti

Published March 10, 2011 by Jennifer Loring

I was 15 when the film version of The Silence of the Lambs was released. I loved it immediately. Anthony Hopkins completely owned the role of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and picked up a well-deserved Oscar in the process. From Red Dragon we have the return of the slimy Dr. Frederick Chilton, Jack Crawford still making questionable decisions (one wonders how he manages to keep his job), and of course, in a starring role this time, Hannibal the Cannibal.

Dr. Lecter is certainly a compelling character, now that we’ve gotten to know him better. Almost charming, if it weren’t for the stare that seems to bore straight into your soul. On one hand he represents the ideals of human society: a highly educated and intelligent man, a professional psychiatrist, cultured and sophisticated. He appreciates art, literature, classical music. But it’s his dark side that has fascinated us for the past 20 years. And boy, does he have a dark side.

Lecter’s power of suggestion is so insidious that I can’t help but wonder what his patients must have felt while sitting on his couch, not even realizing that he was toying with them. Even locked up in a maximum-security mental hospital, Lecter amuses himself by preying on the weak. The unfortunate Miggs, after a night of listening to Lecter’s whispers, swallows his own tongue. Coupled with this is the doctor’s uncanny perception; merely by looking at her, he is able to construct an accurate summary of Clarice Starling’s life, and does the one thing Crawford warns her against–letting him get into her head.

That’s not the worst of it, of course. This refined and cosmopolitan doctor engages in one of the most primitive and taboo practices of our species. He enjoys eating human flesh.

Once a widespread practice, cannibalism has been condemned over the last few centuries as a way to separate more “enlightened” cultures from those perceived as less than human (particularly to justify enslavement of the latter). Dr. Lecter presents a problem with this theory, since he is a far more cultured than many of us could ever hope to be, yet according to current societal mores, engaging in cannibalism makes him a monster. A common reason amongst some primitive tribes for eating others was to insult the deceased; Lecter’s motivations seem to fall within this category, particularly at the end of the film when he tells Clarice, as he spots Dr. Chilton deplaning, that he plans to have “an old friend for dinner.” Throughout the course of both Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs Lecter and Chilton antagonize each other; Chilton certainly recognizes that Lecter is, intellectually at least, his superior, and despises him for it. He metes out his petty punishments like a child throwing a temper tantrum. In deciding to cannibalize him, Lecter is merely returning insult for insult.

But what of his other victims? Lecter surely views them with contempt, for as a psychopath he is also a narcissist. We need only remember the census taker who dared attempt to test him, the poor man whose liver was famously cooked with “some fava beans and a nice chianti.” One can infer that Lecter’s cannibalism relates to another once-common practice, eating those who have fallen in battle. By consuming those who are weaker than he is, Dr. Lecter asserts his dominance over them. Cannibalism removed him from normal human society due to cultural restrictions; Lecter eats human flesh because he views himself as being superior to that society.

I enjoyed the opportunity to view The Silence of the Lambs again, and to view it in a vastly different way than I did as a teenager and even in my 20s. It remains one of my favorite films for many reasons, but largely due to a certain terrifyingly engaging psychiatrist.

4 comments on “Fava Beans and A Nice Chianti

  • After watching "The Silence of the Lambs" again I went on to watch the movie "Hannibal." In this sequel Clarise tells someone that Lecter ate people who exasperated him, meaning his ingestion of them was an insult as you wrote, and to improve society. Although in some cases throughout this second movie it almost seemed as if Lecter fulfilled both motives with each victim he chose to eat. However, I thought it was great how you juxtaposed Lecter's refined behavior as being the social epitome, but his cannibalism being taboo.

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  • Good post, Jenn. Thought-provoking as usual. You have me thinking about those old — and not so old; Liberians for up to the same scary-ass bullsh*t just a few years ago, and maybe still are — battlefield cannibals. You draw a good comparison between these whack-jobs and Hannibal. Both are consuming in the name of dominance. The warrior cannibals favored strong opponents, believing they owned the strength of someone they ate. Hannibal enjoyed equal parts domination and elimination, as you point out, and felt contempt for his victims. He's a great character.

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  • Ooh. Miggs. I forgot about him. That one detail lets us know just how dangerous it is to let Lecter get in your head. Lecter doesn't need to touch you to kill you. That's power.

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  • Few people want to admit that only the thinnest veneer of civility separates us from our base instincts. Lecter makes no apologies or excuses for his behavior. As repellent as his actions are, you've got to at least respect his honesty.

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