The 2001 remake of the Polish film W Pustyni I W Puszczy (In Desert and Wilderness), directed by Gavin Hood, is as much journey as it is a mature fable. The story has much in common with Pan’s Labyrinth except that the magical realism was presented in a different way.
Europeans are in turn of the 20th century Sudan and are fighting the Mahdi Army (basically the same situation as today). The British have captured the family of one of the higher ranking officials hoping to force him into a truce of sorts. Instead he kidnaps Stas (Adam Fidusiewicz), who is 14, and Nel (Karolina Sawka), who is nine, as revenge. They travel with members of the Mahti Army and are fortunately befriended by a Greek who turned Muslim to save his skin (he also gives Stas some quinine to help Nel who has contracted malaria). While this branch of the Mahti Army is bivouacked two African slaves are brought as gifts: Mea (Lingile Shongwe) and Kali (Mzwandile Ngubeni) their ages closely match Stas’s and Nel’s. The children are being taken in advance of the rest of the Army when they come upon a lion. The Muslim commands that the African children be fed to the lion so they can escape. Stas gets his double-barreled shotgun. The first shot kills the lion, with the second he kills the Muslim. He is able to get the rest when he gets extra shells. That is where the world of adults comes to an end.
The fable begins. Kali is looking for his home; he is the son of a chief and now a freed slave, so his goal is home. Mea is his friend but they met in a slave camp so she has a different home; for now, she is his companion. Stas and Nel need to reach the sea so the British can take them back to their home. The relationship grows based on mutual respect and need. The Europeans provide animals for transportation and a shotgun for food; the Africans possess intimate knowledge of their surroundings. The fable involves the way Kali’s and Mea’s spiritual world surrounds and protects them because of Mea’s specific knowledge. They are nearly attacked by a lion during a thunderstorm but Mea plays one of the flutes around her neck and lighting strikes a nearby tree frightening the lion away. Incidents like this and one involving Nel caring for an injured elephant all work to create the protective fable.
The balance between the adult and the child worlds is stark and deeply symbolic. I want to cover that in detail, but I need to get the general analysis out of the way first. There is no weak link in the acting. The majority of the film focuses on the 4 children, but the adult characters are just as strong. Ms. Sawka is particularly amazing—her smile is one of the engines of the fable.
In Desert and in Wilderness is an epic of sorts. The first 20 minutes is about the fight between the Mahti in Sudan and the Europeans fighting to maintain control of the vital north-south trade routes. We never see pitched battles, but we do see armies amassing. The panoramas and the way the various journeys take place are very similar to any of the other epic movies set in Africa. It may seem a paradox that an epic could have such a small cast take up the majority of it, but it has the structure of an epic movie and the cinematography and the scenery to back it up.
I want to cover two minor gripes. First, regular readers of my reviews will know that I am an accent and language martinet. The songs, which are beautiful, do not match the songs of that area or the language of the area. The second is that the lions that come hunting for them are lions and not lionesses. It is a good thing that the lion is the one that comes because they are slower being more interested in territory than food—that’s what lionesses are for; had they run into one of those beasts the movie would have been much shorter.
The only reason I think Americans can’t pull of a fable without it looking childish and sappy is that we aren’t old enough a culture to have any that are truly our own. Italians, Spanish, and Latin Americans are all fantastic fabulists. The British are able to make them too. I had never seen one from Eastern Europe, but I will now see if there are others like this one.
This fable is different because, while supernatural in some respects, it is not truly supernatural in being visited by spirits or mythical creatures. The fable here relies only on the words of the children and the scenery around them. Pan’s Labyrinth ‘s fabulism relied on beautifully crafted imaginary locations and figures. Neither is better than the other, they each achieve their end the way that works for their stories. The labyrinth was for one girl, more would complicate it. In Desert and in Wilderness has too many children with too many slightly conflicting motives and goals for the private world in Pan’s to be effective.
What I meant by the difference between the adult world and the children’s world is the level of complexity especially when measured against faith and imagination. The adult world is one of fighting, anger, instability, and finally infertility. The first part of the film involves kidnapping, slavery, war, angry tribes and a jihad. The last part of the film has the children (with adults from Kali’s tribe who steal the water when they run off in the night) are walking across a desert to make it to the ocean. Adults stole the water and, finally, adults rescue the children; but this rescue happens in the desert.
This is contrasted with a world of greenery and rain and food. The children’s idyll contains enough to eat, drink, and really enough activities that are in essence play. Yes Stas and Kali are past puberty but they are still more boys then men. Mea keeps the spirits appeased; Nel befriends an elephant who befriends her; Kali and Stas hunt and gather and play when they are able. It is also worth noting that Stas makes kites out of dried fish bladders and writes their names on them and sets them free. That is the cusp of manhood to use a child’s toy as a sort of message in a bottle. A soldier finds one and brings it to Nel’s and Stas’s fathers. I cannot ignore that they are in a desert at this time.
Despite the way I might make it sound, this symbolism is not at all heavy handed. However, once you notice it, you see the stark contrasts between the green world that provides all that is needed against the barren world of men. These 4 children do not have any serious arguments. They escaped from the worst kind of serious arguments men can have—a fight for land, honor, and God.
I believe this is the first Polish movie I have seen and I cannot say that I was disappointed at all.
What did you think of this review?