What about the fava beans and Chianti?

Much is explained in Hannibal Rising, the marvelously risible origin tale of the celebrated sociopath Hannibal Lecter.

His fetish for masks? Check.

His skill with a scalpel? Got it.

His penchant for cannibalism? Ahh, we see!

But while considerable light is shed on the pathology of the Silence of the Lambs psychokiller - and the mad murderer of several other blood-soaked movie hits and mega-selling tomes - Lecter's taste for Tuscan wine and vicia faba remains a mystery.

However, the young Hannibal - played with a mad gleam by the handsome but altogether un-Anthony Hopkins-ish Gaspard Ulliel - does enjoy a nice bruschette of mushroom and cheeks now and again. Human cheeks, of course.

Like a movie adaptation of a superhero comic, Hannibal Rising - directed by Peter Webber, of the pulse-pounding period thriller Girl With a Pearl Earring (how did he get this job?) - goes back to its subject's traumatic childhood. The prepubescent Lecter (Aaron Thomas) is the scion of a noble Lithuanian clan who, in 1944, finds itself, and its castle, in the unfortunate position of being right where the Nazis and the Red Army are shooting at each other.

Grabbing a few valuables, the Lecters flee to a cottage in the woods to wait things out, but it isn't long before Mommy and Daddy get caught in a tank-and-plane cross fire. And then the boy and his little sister, Mischa, find themselves at the mercy of an evil band of looters. It is winter, the squirrels are in hiding, and so, to survive this frigid, foodless spell, the nasty men with rotten teeth and predatory leers decide that the tiny girl will make quite a nice supper.

Yes, as Hannibal explains a decade later to his beautiful Japanese aunt-in-law and lover - played by that fabulously sexy straight woman Gong Li - "They ate my sister."

So, Hannibal Rising is a revenge story, as the young man, soon to be a medical student in Paris, hunts down the slimeballs who slurped on his sis.

Shot in various classy European locales, with a screenplay by author Thomas Harris himself, Hannibal Rising follows our budding sadist from his postwar days in a Soviet-run orphanage (he exacts revenge on a bully with a swift jab of a fork) to a chateau in France. There he finds his uncle's widow, Murasaki Shikibu (Gong), a woman who endured her own World War II horrors (Hiroshima) and now practices the martial arts, keeps a nice collection of swords, and prays in a room full of lovely Asian masks.

When a butcher at a market makes crude remarks at Lady Murasaki, Hannibal decides to teach him a lesson. Head on a stump, anyone?

Although it is rife with arterial spurts, demonic close-ups, and death by dismemberment, drowning, impalement and explosion, Hannibal Rising is surprisingly discreet. This is not the graphically violent, unsettling stuff of Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs or Ridley Scott's over-the-top Hannibal. Webber cuts politely away, leaving the chomping of cheek-meat to the imagination.

What Hannibal Rising is, mostly, is a hoot. Gong Li cautions the nightmare-plagued Hannibal that "Memory is a knife - it can hurt you."

A Paris police inspector (played by The Wire's Dominic West - yes, McNulty with a French accent!) observes that the med student-turned-murderer has become something indescribable. But Inspector Popil will try, anyway: "What he is now there is no word for, except monster."

And let's not forget the classic, "They ate my sister."

Abattoir and Costello, anyone?

Hannibal Rising ** (out of four stars)

Produced by Tarak Ben Ammar, Dino De Laurentiis and Martha Schumacher, directed by Peter Webber, written by Thomas Harris, based on his novel, photography by Ben Davis, music by Ilan Eshkeri and Shigeru Umebayashi, distributed by the Weinstein Co.

Running time: 2 hours, 1 min.

Hannibal Lecter................................ Gaspard Ulliel

Murasaki Shikibu. . . Gong Li

Inspector Popil. . . Dominic West

Vladis Grutas.......................................... Rhys Ifans

Parent's guide: R (violence, gore, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stevenrea.