A Wayback Film Recommendation for Valentine’s Day

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo

1996’s The English Patient has several attributes that earned it the Academy Award for Best Picture. Based on Michael Ondaatje’s Booker prize-winning novel, it uses elements of Greek tragedy, with fateful characters fighting moral battles and being mercilessly enveloped by their own environment.

The dual storyline is set amid the lush terrain of Tuscany in Italy and warmed by the deserts of Tunisia. It is 1940 and a biplane is shot out of the skies over the Sahara. Desert nomads rescue a man from the wreckage, a man burned beyond recognition but clinging to life by a thread. This torn and broken form winds up in an Allied army hospital where his nationality is guessed to be English. Five years later, horribly scarred and still waiting to die, the nameless patient is being transported through the mine-riddled Tuscan region when his French-Canadian nurse Hana (played by Juliette Binoche) asks to be left behind with the patient at an abandoned monastery so that she can make his last days comfortable. From here the movie travels back and forth across the five-year time span. The patient, who is Count Laszlo de Almasy (the talented Ralph Fiennes—no, put Voldemort out of your head) remembers more than he has let on, and over the course of the two-hour, forty-minute film, his secrets are unfolded. While working with a British map-making crew in Tunisia, Almasy falls in love with the wife of another member of the expedition. She is Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), but the same desert that brought them together threatens to tear them apart. As was the case with the classic Dr. Zhivago, some of the most memorable love stories emerge from the most harsh of settings, and that holds true here. Beneath the heated passion of the lovers lie the early deep rumblings of World War II, and that, added to the unrelenting conditions of the Sahara and Almasy’s own obsession with his beloved, leads every character in this story to their final destinies.

Among those whose lives are forever affected by the secret lovers are David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a Canadian spy with hatred ruthlessly instilled in him by the Nazis and who is bent on revenge, the nurse Hana who has lost everyone she has loved but risks her heart once more for a Muslim minesweeper who faces danger every day.

These well-written characters are accompanied, if not overwhelmed, by stunning photography intended for a big screen—views of the gleaming white spires of an ancient Saharan city seen through the scrollwork of a window shutter, countered by the peeling-paint walls of the Tuscan monastery overgrown with foliage. One standout scene is when Hana, sizzling flare in hand, is hoisted by ropes to the ceiling of the cavernous monastery to view the fading and chipped Medieval frescoes painted by the hands of a long-forgotten artist. It’s just one magical moment in a beautiful cinematic portrait.

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