Passion in the Desert has good cinematography and an inventive story. A slowly paced midsection and an off-putting subject matter keep it from being great (or widely distributed), but for the adventurous moviegoer, it’s worth a look.
Augustin (played very well by Ben Daniels, in a role with little dialogue) is a soldier in Napoleon’s army. Augustin’s unit is transporting Venture (Michel Piccoli), one of Napoleon’s artists, to some of the sights in the Egyptian Desert. After a martial skirmish, Augustin and Venture find themselves alone and lost in the desert.
Augustin leaves Venture in search of water (both men knowing that he’s leaving Venture to die). Time passes, Augustin walks, and eventually, his horse dies. He keeps plodding on foot and finally comes to a tent, where he steals some water. He is chased from the tent and flees into a desert canyon, where he hides in a cave. As his pursuers approach, he discovers that he is sharing his cave with a leopard. The cat leaps out of the cave and kills one of the men, giving Augustin the opportunity to find a new hiding place.
The surrounding desert condemns Augustin and the leopard to share the same canyon. The leopard has spared Augustin’s life once, but the two still don’t trust each other. They come to terms with each other around the watering hole, learning to share the water without hostility. Eventually, they learn to share food, and finally, affection.
Augustin’s affection for the leopard takes an unnatural turn after several nights spent sleeping near each other. A passionate lick is all we see (or all that transpires, for all we know), but it changes an interesting hypothetical situation into something more fantastic. It severs some of the audience’s empathy by being more than most of us would be willing to share.
At this point, it seems that Augustin has given up on being human. After desperate days wandering through the desert and facing his own death, he adapts to life with the leopard (whom he names Simoom). He has given up on finding a way out of the desert and has instead chosen to fulfill his needs in Simoom’s canyon. Being a French soldier has not allowed him to survive; being this leopard’s partner has. When a troop of French soldiers comes within earshot, he hides himself from them. He truly has shunned humanity.
Augustin’s passion turns into jealousy when a male leopard shows up and mates with his newfound love. He takes this insult badly. The problem, as he sees it, is not his unnatural passion and jealousy, but his species. In another of the film’s awkward moments, Augustin strips naked, makes paint from different-colored rocks, and cakes himself with orange and black mud.
Simoom seems to understand the limits of their relationship much better than Augustin, and eventually she convinces him to rejoin his own species.
Daniels had a tough job in this role, and he pulled it off very well. The range required for the part is expansive, and Daniels was convincing at each level, from competent soldier to near-dead mummy to leopard-man. The “acting” on the part of Simoom was also incredible (though some credit for the “performance” should surely go to the director and editor for filling in the gaps). The leopard had to, and did, communicate distrust, trust, and affection.
The cinematography (by Alexei Rodionov) was also very good, although it’s hard to go wrong when you are filming in a desert. The film was shot in Jordan and in Moab, Utah, both of which seem naturally photogenic. The same could be said for Daniels’ piercing blue eyes and the leopard’s sleek form. Not to detract from Rodionov’s accomplishment, but it would have been hard to shoot this film badly.
With all this going for it, Passion in the Desert should be an outstanding film. But Augustin’s unnatural passion keeps us from really empathizing with him, and thus from getting caught up in the film. His behavior is explainable, but it is not fathomable. And because this was so integral to the movie, its length could not have been easily cut. Perhaps the setup could have been shortened, but then we would not be able to see the change in the man so drastically. The movie, too long by a couple of minutes, had nothing left to trim.
Still, the movie is quite original, so if you’re feeling daring, go and see it.