By Caren Weiner Campbell
December 04, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

You don’t have to be a cat lover to appreciate the lyrical adaptation of the Honoré de Balzac novella Passion in the Desert — but it helps. An officer in Napoléon’s army (Ben Daniels), ordered to escort a painter across Egypt, loses his battalion in a sandstorm and his companion to dehydration. Miraculously, he finds a watering hole and is befriended by the resident leopard; dependent on the cat for food and companionship, he sheds his clothes and civilization — until his battalion returns. Though rookie writer-director Lavinia Currier lays on the symbolism, Daniels gives the drama of encountering one’s inner wildness unexpected depth. Summer moviegoers virtually ignored this film; thanks to the intimacy of home video, however, it unfolds like a provocative dream. A-

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