Saharan Stunner

The winds that sweep across the Sahara kick up ferocious sandstorms. Dunes change shape by the hour, flying particles blind the eye, and all sense of direction and reason is lost. In such disorienting surroundings, reality and hallucination converge, and the most inexplicable, unimaginable events can occur.

Passion in the Desert relates one such incident. Based on a controversial short story by French writer Honore de Balzac, the film marks the feature debut of writer/director/producer Lavinia Currier, who spent seven years trying to bring the story to the screen. Unlike the mindless, special effects-laden movies that crowd the summer release schedule, this small, hypnotic film connects on an emotional and spiritual level.

The year is 1798. Army captain Augustin Robert (British actor Ben Daniels) has been assigned to escort the renowned artist Venture (veteran French actor Michel Piccoli) across the desert. Venture is accompanying Napoleon's army on its march across Egypt, sketching the monuments, people and landscapes of North Africa. Following an attack by desert warriors, Augustin and his charge are separated from the rest of the regiment. Thrown off course by a fierce sandstorm and desperate for water, they face almost certain death.

Augustin sets off alone in search of help, but the endless sand, punishing heat and numbing silence drive him to the brink of madness. Chased by Bedouins, he seeks refuge in a cave where, exhausted, he falls asleep. He awakens to find himself staring into the unblinking eyes of a leopard.

Instead of attacking Augustin, the animal seems to accept his presence, sleeping beside him and even sharing her food with him. Augustin names her Simoom, the Bedouin word for the Sahara's hot, poisonous wind. As the days and nights pass and he is drawn ever deeper into his new environment, Augustin becomes as much a part of nature as Simoom. But that balance is threatened when another leopard appears at the cave.

Balzac's story raised eyebrows when it was published because of the implicit suggestion that Augustin falls in love with the cat. But it is precisely this development that gives the story its emotional edge and spiritual power. The scenes between Daniels and the leopard are extraordinary, especially when you realize that no special effects and no computer-generated imagery were used to create an illusion that man and beast are sharing the same frame.

The film is audacious on many levels, beginning with the story line. And while the movie trailers may suggest a pretentious, Calvin Klein ad campaign, the film is never less than mesmerizing. Currier and her gifted, Russian-born cinematographer, Alexei Rodionov (who shot Sally Potter's Orlando), have found a way to involve all the senses, making the picture an unusually tactile and aural experience. Currier is comfortable with silence, and the natural sounds of the desert -- Simoom lapping water from a pond, the soft rustle of grass, the wind whistling through the rocks -- are frequently the only sounds. The evocative score by Jose Nieto and Hamza El Din (reminiscent of Michael Nyman's work) is never intrusive.

Visually, the film is stunning. The first half -- with the army fighting the desert warriors and Augustin and Venture wandering in circles -- is awash in color and has a wonderful sense of immediacy. The second half -- focusing on Augustin and Simoom -- has a dream-like quality, although the images are always crisp and clear. A constant but low-key sense of movement produces a lulling rhythm, which draws the viewer ever deeper into the story. The film was partially shot in Wadi Rum, Jordan, where much of Lawrence of Arabia was filmed, but with two exceptions, Rodionov eschews the long-lens photography traditionally used to evoke the isolation and beauty of the desert.

Considering the danger posed by leopards (they are the most unpredictable of the big cats), the film had to be shot in an almost documentary fashion. Scenes could never be restaged for a second take, and the trainer had to stand just outside the camera's range, lest the animal turn on the actor or cameraman. Daniels is remarkable. Unknown to American audiences, he faced an extraordinarily difficult task in making his character believable. With very little dialogue to speak and much subtle emotion to register, he easily could have slipped into overacting. But he never does.

There's no question but that Passion in the Desert is an art-house film and, certainly, not to everyone's taste. But giant lizards on the rampage and meteors hurtling toward Earth can offer only so much. Viewers who like to invest more than just time and popcorn in a movie will be greatly affected by this striking film.

Passion in the Desert.
Rated PG-13.
Directed by Lavinia Currier. With Ben Daniels and Michel Piccoli.

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