We first see Clarice Starling running along the Quantico ropes course, jumping all obstacles in her way and always looking forward. It's clear she is a woman with a will of steel.
Only two scenes later we see the FBI trainee in a maximum-security prison, encountering serial killer Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter in one of the greatest tests of will ever to be preserved on celluloid.
For the two people out there for whom fava beans and chianti are nothing more than fine dining, I refer to Jonathan Demme's 1991 thriller "The Silence of the Lambs." In one of the decade's towering film triumphs (and one of only three movies to sweep the Academy Awards), Demme took a story that had the potential alternately to disgust and to mortify, and turned it into a work that's both horrifying and harrowing. It's a riveter to relish.
Ted Tally adapted "Silence" from the Thomas Harris novel, a follow-up to "Red Dragon," which traced Lecter's capture and later became the movie "Manhunter," an equally taut but less textured thriller than "Silence."
The bare-bones plot is that Starling's mentor, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), sends his fledgling agent to meet with Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist who feasted on a few of his patients. Crawford hopes Starling will elicit some information about another serial killer still on the loose, one nicknamed "Buffalo Bill" (the superb Ted Levine).
But to reveal much more than that would be to spoil the whole meal for those two readers who still haven't seen "Silence," so I'll refrain, and instead discuss the two main reasons why "Silence" is golden.
Their names are Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, who, in the roles that will provide them their legacy, engage in one heck of a tete-a-tete.
We see much of this from the get-go, as Lecter meets Starling and immediately sizes her up. Though he's the one in the Plexiglas cell, Starling is the one who ends up being interrogated. Within minutes, Lecter correctly guesses Starling's past.
Craig McKay's quickly cut close-ups between the two let us know just how relentless Lecter can be, how one meeting with him can let him take your psyche hostage forever. There were many ways Foster could have played her reaction here: She could have cried, she could have gotten angry, she could have sounded mousy. Instead, she makes Starling stoically hold her ground; she's a lamb with a lion on the inside just waiting to roar.
"Silence" is clearly Foster's movie, as we see Starling's determination help her overcome desperation, guilt and vulnerability. But Hopkins proves to be a most adroit thief. Though Lecter's scenes amount to only a quarter of the film's running time, he is always on our minds.
Hopkins' Lecter is one of the most memorable screen characters of all time. In one of the greatest gifts to an actor since Shakespeare himself created Hamlet, "Silence" has its own dark prince. But Lecter is not so much an animal (in keeping with the Film Festival's "Animal Attractions" theme) as he is an all-too-brilliant human. He is blessed with the ability to understand people better than they understand themselves, but cursed with the inability ever to fit in alongside them. As a result, Lecter forced himself to a lifetime of prey, becoming the most insidious of all man-beasts.
And yet his transcendent performance (paired with Tally's excellent dialogue) creates an enormous amount of sympathy for the devil. With Buffalo Bill serving as the real danger in the movie, Lecter takes on an almost heroic status.
But Demme is more than just a master puppeteer. "Silence" hits us viscerally because he feeds off universal human fears, such as being trapped in the dark. And much like Hitchcock, the scare is in the suggestion. One scene, for instance, shows a victim at the bottom of Buffalo Bill's well, awaiting certain doom. She sees a bloodied fingernail stuck on the wall, and our imaginations conjure up images much worse than anything that could be assembled on screen.
Ultimately, that's Demme's greatest gift. He allows our imaginations to run rampant. Who can ask a film to do more than that?