November 11, 1996 7:03 PM EST

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From their green, damp, congested homelands, Europeans come to the North African desert and fall in love–as if into quicksand–with the dry vastness. Like T.E. Lawrence, they are awed by the womanly contours of the great desert dunes. Soon their faces are bronzed, their limbs burnished, their hair bleached, until they are the color of sand. These nomads-by-choice have become the Sahara.

The English Patient, the keenly rapturous film that Anthony Minghella has made of Michael Ondaatje’s novel, burrows into these feelings even as it flies above them like a plane full of surveyors. This is a big film, serious and voluptuous. It hopscotches through time, from 1937 to 1944, and over two continents. It probes issues of betrayal and forgiveness. It borrows Lawrence of Arabia’s epic intellect for a tale of potent romance. But its sophistication never obscures the story, which is as charged as the North African adulteries in Casablanca and The Sheltering Sky. Here is an Englishwoman who tells her man, “I’ve always loved you.” And here is a Hungarian count who vows, “I promise I’ll never leave you.”

He is not English, this Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), nor is he at all patient. But those are the words on his medical papers when, scorched and disfigured, he comes under the care of a Canadian nurse named Hana (Juliette Binoche) in Italy at the end of World War II. To the wounded, Hana is a guardian angel, listening like a doting mother to their plaints, caressing them like the chaste lovers they left back home. Setting Almasy up in a ruined monastery, she swathes his parchment skin and reads to him from his precious volume of Herodotus, while Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), another veteran of the African campaign, urgently quizzes the patient on his mysterious wartime past.

Through flashbacks we see what Almasy is trying to remember–or trying to keep others from discovering. Brilliant and aloof, commanding many languages, he was part of a British cartography expedition in the Sahara. There he meets Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas), the cool, sure wife of a member of the team. Almasy is aroused and troubled by Katharine; even dancing, he stalks her furtively, as if she’s not supposed to know she’s in his arms. Almasy, a hoarder of his own secrets, may want to possess but not be known; Katharine may be tired of her cheery husband (Colin Firth), and she’s itchy to return to her seaside home. None of this matters when they fall in love.

Most films, as they ravel their stories, narrow their focus to two or three central characters. The English Patient, though, expands its field of vision to embrace the impromptu communities around Almasy–notably Hana and her Sikh lover Kip (Naveen Andrews). They re-enact, with less melodrama, the arc of Almasy and Katharine’s desperate affair. Almasy wants his love to flee in a plane; Kip sends Hana soaring on pulleys into the clerestory of the monastery chapel. Up there with the heavenly murals: Kip knows that’s where this pensive angel belongs.

The English Patient is up there with Hana. Minghella, a British playwright whose first film (Truly Madly Deeply) was also about love beyond death, gives care to the segue of image and sound from one scene to the next, to the performers’ intonations and gazes, to snatches of dialogue–say, a phrase as glancing as “Yes. Absolutely”–that may echo an hour later to haunt the characters.

The film is, in an old phrase, beyond gorgeous: a feast whose splendor serves Almasy complex passions. The cast is superb: Binoche, with her thin, seraphic smile; Scott Thomas, aware of the spell she casts but not flaunting it; Fiennes, especially, radiating sexy mystery, threat shrouded in hauteur. Doom and drive rarely have so much stately star quality.

All year we’ve seen mirages of good films. Here is the real thing. To transport picturegoers to a unique place in the glare of the earth, in the darkness of the heart–this, you realize with a gasp of joy, is what movies can do.

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