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"PASSION IN THE DESERT"
(1998) (Ben Daniels, Michel Piccoli) (PG-13)

Alcohol/
Drugs
Blood/Gore Disrespectful/
Bad Attitude
Frightening/
Tense Scenes
Guns/
Weapons
Minor Heavy Mild *Moderate Moderate
Imitative
Behavior
Jump
Scenes
Music
(Scary/Tense)
Music
(Inappropriate)
Profanity
Minor None Minor None Minor
Sex/
Nudity
Smoking Tense Family
Scenes
Topics To
Talk About
Violence
Heavy None None Minor Extreme


QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A Napoleonic soldier, lost in the Egyptian desert in the late 18th century, enters into an odd relationship with an adult female leopard.
PLOT:
It's 1798 and Augustin Robert (BEN DANIELS) is a French soldier assigned to the Egyptian desert. On order from Napoleon, Augustin is to protect Jean-Michel Venture de Paradis (MICHEL PICCOLI), an artist and scholar detailed to record the expedition and its archaeological findings. After a fierce battle with some local warriors, however, Augustin and Venture find themselves separated from their military escorts.

Lost, hungry and thirsty, they traverse the windswept desert valleys and hills to no avail. Augustin eventually sets out on his own to look for help, but after he loses his horse and has a close call with some angry nomads, he hides in an immense complex of caverns and caves of some long forgotten ancient city.

There, he suddenly finds himself confronted by an adult female leopard, a feline he names Simoom that inexplicably accepts him as one of her own and basically saves and then provides for him. As the two bond closer to each other, it's only a matter of time before human intervention causes Augustine to choose between living like a leopard and returning to his previous human existence.

WILL KIDS WANT TO SEE IT?
If they like animal stories and hear this is one about a leopard that befriends a man, they just might (but it probably won't be what they or you are expecting).
WHY THE MPAA RATED IT: PG-13
For violence including some depictions of barbarism, and for nudity.
CAST AS ROLE MODELS:
  • BEN DANIELS plays a soldier who befriends a leopard and adopts her wild feline lifestyle, and behaves in something nearing a romantic/bestial attachment to the cat.
  • MICHEL PICCOLI plays an artist who is more concerned with his work than his or others' well- being.
  • CAST, CREW, & TECHNICAL INFO

    HOW OTHERS RATED THIS MOVIE


    OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
    You'd never guess how significant one commonly used word can be, but the omission of the word "a" from the title of the new film, "Passion in the Desert," completely changes its meaning. Based on the early 19th century novella, "A Passion in the Desert" by Honore de Balzac (who also penned the recently released "Cousin Bette"), this film is the equivalent of seeing a mirage after suffering and wandering through the desert like the lead character -- you won't believe what shows up before your eyes.

    While the new title and the story's locale makes one think of films like "The English Patient" -- and it's gorgeously shot like that film -- it's more like "Beyond the Closed Jungle Doors with Tarzan." Not only will the romantics out there be disappointed -- unless they're into bestiality which we'll touch on in a moment -- but parents taking their kids in hopes of an old fashioned, Disney-like animal escapade will be shocked at what's presented (although the material may go over the younger kids' heads).

    A compelling, if ultimately misguided directorial debut from Lavinia Currier (who cowrote the script with Martin Edmunds), the film starts off promisingly enough. After discovering a near dead, sunburnt, and injured man in the desert (a la "The English Patient") our curiosity is peaked as we backtrack through time to discover what led up to this moment. That's fine, many movies start that way, and the mystery instantly intrigues us, as does the wonderful scenery (shot in the Jordan desert and Utah as stand-ins for Egypt) so beautifully captured by cinematographer Alexei Rodionov ("Orlando").

    After some brief moments with the Napoleonic army and a fierce battle, our hero and his charge find themselves wandering through the desert. Here the film -- while still visually stunning -- starts to sputter as Currier delivers standard-issue "lost in the desert" material that we've seen in countless other films.

    Yet, we're still hanging on for the ride, still mildly curious about the protagonist when the main plot kicks in and the absurdity meter pegs off the scale and gets worse as the story progresses. For it's here that Augustin meets Simoom, the deadly leopardess that mysteriously doesn't attack and eat him like she does every other human. Not only are those laws of nature shattered, but our protagonist and the frisky feline soon share the same bloody carcasses, frolic in the caves and get down to some serious -- and near erotic -- tongue grooming of each other (think of the hairballs).

    Yes, you read that right -- erotic. It gets even more preposterous when Augustin gets jealous of Simoom fooling around with a male leopard. Then -- in the currently fashionable male full nudity scene -- he slinks around on all fours while marking himself like a leopard, presumably to be more attractive to his new love. Hell hath no fury like a human scorned by a leopardess for another leopard.

    If you haven't fallen away from the computer laughing hysterically by now, you must think I'm joking -- but alas, I'm not. Not being familiar with the original source novella, the only thing I could figure/hope was that all of this was supposed to be a dehydrated, desert induced hallucination. While there's the ever so brief possibility that such an explanation is the case, the rest of the "evidence" suggests that the filmmakers are playing this straight and don't realize just how absurd all of this actually comes off.

    Sure, there will be some "serious" filmgoers out there who will see all sorts of symbolism in the picture. That's easy to do since this movie features the least amount of dialogue of any feature length production that I've seen in years or can quickly think of (beyond "Silent Movie"), and there's that old saying about a thousand words per picture. Some will obviously see this as representing the intrusion of man in the natural order of the animal kingdom, etc..., and while that's somewhat valid, the film's goofy bestiality element shortchanges any such notions.

    As the main and essentially only human character to appear throughout the film, Ben Daniels does the best with the material he's been given. With his long, blond mane of hair, and slender catlike physique, he easily adopts the feline disposition and appearance, and is game to coming mighty close to making a grand fool of himself. If anything, however, he should get the award for most courageous actor of the year as he performed "without a net" with three hand-raised, but still wild and unpredictable leopards that played Simoom.

    Currier, who had those leopards specially raised for their part in this film, obviously adores the big cats and lovingly films them with as much majesty as their barren surroundings. As such, the film works on a visual level, and has to since, as stated earlier, there's not much dialogue to rely upon.

    Without the wholehearted belief that all of this is a desert mirage, however, all of the wonderful scenery and camera work (that can otherwise be found on the Discovery Channel or similarly based National Geographic specials) can't make up for the unrealistic and quite absurd material that intrudes upon what could have been a good film.

    Never learning why this leopard grants Augustin immunity to the deadly laws of nature, and not even wanting to explore the multilayered sub-text of bestiality that suddenly pops up near the end of the movie (other than making one question Tarzan's behavior in all of those movies before Jane showed up), I'm disappointed that the film ultimately comes off as a letdown. That's especially true when it feels that there's an epic story hidden somewhere under the surface just wanting to get out.

    Currier shows some potential, but can't survive the material that will unintentionally cause some of the biggest laughs and/or awkwardly embarrassing moments of the week in the cinema. With a bare bones plot, no character development (other than turning into an animal) and little appeal (once the erotic truth is known) outside the art house circuit, this film will disappear faster than a drop of water hitting the hot desert sands. We give "Passion in the Desert" a 3 out of 10.

    OUR WORD TO PARENTS:
    Glimpses (of varying lengths) of male full frontal nudity occurs for several minutes as the main character covers himself with mud and "dresses up" like a leopard. There's also a scene that may unsettle some viewers (especially if they've brought the kids along) where Augustin and the female leopard lie on the ground in a near embrace, and he lovingly caresses her and licks her coat (that really flirts with bestiality -- especially when he later gets jealous that she's being "courted" by a real male leopard).

    A brief, but violent battle occurs early in the story where people are shot or stabbed to death, and that scene and others that feature wild kill are somewhat bloody and gruesome. Beyond all of that and a few mildly suspenseful scenes, most of the remaining categories have little or no objectionable material. Due to what's present, however, you may want to take a closer look at the content should you, your kids, or anyone else in your home wish to see this film.


    ALCOHOL OR DRUG USE
  • We see some bottles of wine at a military camp.
  • BLOOD/GORE
  • Augustin's arm looks quite bloody when he's found in the desert.
  • We see a late eighteenth century doctor sawing at a man's arm with a large butcher knife (from a distance and attempting to amputate it) and then see him raise the knife to hack off the arm (and we then see blood splatter onto the wall).
  • We see dead bodies in the sand after a violent fight and some of them are bloody as is the sand near them. We then see a soldier digging his hand into a dead warrior's bloody wound (trying to retrieve his shot) and hear his hand inside the man's body (that wet, smacking sound).
  • Venture uses blood from a dead person on one of his paintings.
  • A man commits suicide with a pistol shot to the head (not seen, although we later see the body that has a sand covered hole in the head).
  • Augustin has a bit of a nose bleed, and later gets sliced on the face with a knife that leaves a slender, bloody cut.
  • We see some blood on the turban-covered head of a man that a leopard has just killed.
  • We see many instances where the leopard and/or Augustine eat raw and bloody meat from freshly killed carcasses.
  • A man's head is bloody after he's been hit there with a rock.
  • A man's hands, his knife, and parts of his clothing are quite bloody after fighting with a leopard.
  • DISRESPECTFUL/BAD ATTITUDE
  • Some French soldiers fire a canon that destroys part of a Sphinx they've discovered.
  • Venture uses his and Augustin's last bit of water to mix his paint, instead of saving it to drink.
  • FRIGHTENING SCENES
  • Depending on the viewer's age and maturity level, the following may or may not be suspenseful to them.
  • We see a late eighteenth century doctor sawing at a man's arm with a large butcher knife (from a distance and attempting to amputate it) and then see him raise the knife to hack off the arm (and we then see blood splatter onto the wall).
  • The soldiers hear the echoing sounds of hyenas off in the distance at night (that frightens them and may do the same for younger kids).
  • A brief, but deadly battle breaks out between the French soldiers and some desert warriors.
  • We see a man hold a pistol to his head (preparing to kill himself) and another preparing to shoot his sickly horse (both succeed).
  • Some men chase Augustine through the desert and into a dark, mysterious and foreboding cave (that may be scary to younger viewers, especially when we initially hear, but don't see the nearby leopard).
  • We see brief glimpses of the leopard attacking a man (and then later biting on his turban-covered head) and then hear more sounds of the attack.
  • Some kids may not like seeing a leopard violent struggle and spin while trying to get a rope from around its neck.
  • A leopard attacks a man and the two fight each other.
  • GUNS/WEAPONS
  • Pistols/Rifles/Swords/Canons: Used to wound or kill people during a fight. See "Violence" for details.
  • Pistol: Used by a man to commit suicide (not seen) and by another to shoot his sickly horse (not seen, but heard).
  • Knife: Used by a woman to try to fend off Augustine (she slightly cuts his face), and by a man in another scene to stab an attacking animal.
  • IMITATIVE BEHAVIOR
  • Phrase: "Slippery old goat."
  • Deranged from a lack of water, Venture drinks his paint (that only makes him more sick).
  • Starving, Augustine eats raw and bloody meat from freshly killed animals.
  • JUMP SCENES
  • None.
  • MUSIC (SCARY/TENSE)
  • Just a bit of suspenseful music appears in the film.
  • MUSIC (INAPPROPRIATE)
  • None.
  • PROFANITY
  • 1 use of "Jesus" as an exclamation.
  • SEX/NUDITY
  • Augustin (who's bonded with the female leopard) lies with her on the ground in a near embrace, caresses her, and then repeatedly licks her coat. While not overtly sexual, the scene is loaded with bestial implications.
  • We see male full frontal (and some rear) nudity many times (of varying durations) as Augustin is completely nude as he covers himself in mud and paints himself to look more like a leopard.
  • SMOKING
  • None.
  • TENSE FAMILY SCENES
  • None.
  • TOPICS TO TALK ABOUT
  • That wild, big cats, such as leopards, aren't known to bond with humans (like domesticated cats).
  • Being stranded in the desert and suffering from heat exhaustion, dehydration, and mirages.
  • VIOLENCE
  • We see a late eighteenth century doctor sawing at a man's arm with a large butcher knife (from a distance and attempting to amputate it) and then see him raise the knife to hack off the arm (and we then see blood splatter onto the wall).
  • Some French soldiers fire a canon that destroys part of a Sphinx they've discovered.
  • Venture pushes a French soldier backwards (for the above).
  • A brief, but deadly battle breaks out between the French soldiers and some desert warriors. Rifles and canons are fired, injuring and/or killing the warriors and some of the soldiers. Others are knocked or pulled from their horses, while more are struck with swords or stabbed with knives.
  • A man shoots his sickly horse (heard, but not seen).
  • A man commits suicide with a pistol shot to the head (not seen, although we later see the body that has a sand covered hole in the head).
  • A woman slightly cuts Augustine's face with a knife as she tries to fend him off.
  • We see brief glimpses of the leopard attacking a man (and then later biting on his turban-covered head) and then hear more sounds of the attack as it kills him.
  • Augustine strikes a rabbit (to kill it for food) and we see it briefly suffering and crying from the wound.
  • A soldier shoots at a bird and later at the leopard with his rifle. Augustine hits this man on the head with a rock as he again prepares to shoot the leopard.
  • A leopard attacks a man and as they fight, the man pulls out a knife that the leopard impales itself on as it jumps on the man.



  • Reviewed June 29, 1998

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