Passion in the Desert (1997)
Director: Lavinia Curier.
Starring: Ben Daniels (Augustin Robert), Michel Piccoli (Jean-Michel Venture de Paradis), Paul Meston (Grognard), Kenneth Collard (Officer), Nadia Odeh (Bedouin Bride), Auda Mohammed Badoul (Shepherd Boy), Mohammed Ali (Medicine Man).
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the movie.
Augustin Robert, an officer in Egypt with Napoleon's French forces, is in the desert with his men. He is supposed to find the French artist Jean-Michel Venture de Paradis and bring him to Napoleon. He finds the peculiar artist who sketches and paints common scenes he sees in Egypt, including casualties of the fighting. He goes out looking for the artist, finds him and brings him back to the encampment. The artist proves helpful, because he see an attack coming from the local tribesmen. He runs to warn the encampment that they are being attacked and the men jump into action. A few men are able to form somewhat of a line and they are able to kill some of the tribesmen. But with the fine horses the tribesmen have, they are on top of the encampment before many are ready for them. Quite a view Frenchmen are killed, but more tribesmen are killed than Frenchmen. The tribesmen retreat.
The forces start moving out. Augustin is delayed because the artist is still unpacked as the men are leaving. He has to help Venture pack up fast. By the time they move out, they can't find the French army. Augustin is frustrated, repeating a familiar refrain: you can't get lost in Egypt; there's the coast and then there's the Nile River. And a dust storm makes everything worse. The men are lost and their water is running out. Very low on water, Augustin gives some of his water to the artist. The artist, however, uses the water to fill up his little paint containers. He then, curiously, drinks the paint containers one after another.
Augustin tells the older man to stay put under a desert tree, saying he will come back for the artist. The artist stays behind, still drinking the rest of his paints. As Augustin and his horse push on through the desert sand, they become more and more exhausted. Finally, the horse gives out and Augustin has to shoot his horse in the head. At the same time Augustin fires his weapon, Venture shoots a bullet into his head, killing himself. Now Augustin is all alone.
Augustin wanders around until he sees some tribal tents. Unbeknownst to him, a wedding is being planned and the bride is by herself. The Frenchman makes his presence known before entering the tent, but when no response is heard, he goes into the tent to investigate. After awhile, the bride enters the tent and is shocked to confront a European. She has a huge mask over her face, leaving only her eyes exposed. August oversteps the boundaries and yanks the mask off the woman. She screams and tries to run away. Augustin grabs her by the hair, takes out his knife and cuts off her huge pigtail. Now he's done it! The bride starts making that traditional trilling sound with her mouth which alerts all the tribesmen in the area.
Augustin decides he better get the hell out of there. He runs out of the tent and starts running to the nearby mountains. Meanwhile, some of the tribesmen get on their horses and rush to see the bride. From there they chase after Augustin, who ducks into a little valley that soon open ups wide. The tribesmen pursue Augustin, but they soon lose him. They decide to return to their camp. They figure that the Jinn will get the man during the night. And if the Jinn does not get the white man ,says one of the tribesmen, he will be back early in the morning to deal with the intruder.
During the night, Augustin can't sleep because a leopard is using the same hide-out for himself. Strangely, the leopard is not interested in harming the human being. The big cat is curious about the fellow and at times comes close to Augustin. Augustin, however, doesn't want the leopard near him. Wisely, he is afraid of what the cat may to to him, especially if Augustin falls asleep.
The tribesman comes back after Augustin in the morning. He finds Augustin's hide-out, but does not know that a leopard will soon greet him. As the man gets closer to the opening in the rocks, the leopard leaps up and out and tears into the newcomer. Augustin comes out and sees the leopard eating the man. Still not wanting anything to do with the big cat, Augustin tries to sneak away, but the cat will not leave him alone. He keeps following Augustin. No matter where Augustin moves, the leopard is already there or soon arrives.
After awhile, the two different living species come together. When the leopard does not bit him or scratch him, Augustin warms to the cat. Soon he is playing with the leopard.
One day, the leopard finds one of her own kind. They play around, enjoying each other's company. Augustin is a bit lonely and decidedsto try to fit in. He makes body paints from rocks and burned sticks. He puts the yellow sand all over his mostly nude, wet body. Then he dabs three of his fingers in a mixture of black body paint and then puts black spots on his now yellow skin, like the skin of the leopards. He also puts black around his eyes.
One day, Augustin realizes that the French army is in the area and he wants to make contact with them. He hurriedly puts on the jacket of his French military uniform. The men see the leopard and one fellow in particular tries to kill the cat. He is about to shoot the leopard when Augustin throws a rock and hits the soldier right in the head. When the man recovers he decides to leave the mountain area.
Now Augustin washes off all his body paint. He puts on what's left of his military uniform. He then decides to make a rope out of reed plants and ties the cat to a column left from old ruins in the area. He tells the cat he will be back, but the cat doesn't like the rope around his neck and starts fighting it. The cat gets out of the rope and Augustin starts running for his life. The angry cast comes after Augustin, scratching him and biting him, until quite a bit of blood spills out from the Frenchman. Augustin gets away from the cat, but the cat charges him again. Augustin takes out his knife and the cat leaps onto the sharp blade.
Sadly, he carries the dead cat away from the column ruins. He starts walking through the desert sand until exhausted he plops down on his knees in the sand still holding the dead cat
This is not a good historical film. It's about a man having to fight to survive and finding comfort with a leopard cat. There is just the minimum of history in that Augustin is with the French army in Egypt. That's it. So I wouldn't recommend this as an historical film. It's a good movie as drama, but even then I thought the ending came a little too quickly after about 90 minutes. And I still don't really know what to make of what happened to Augustin the Frenchman.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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