Sheltering Sky, The (1991): Bertolucci’s Ambitious, Flawed Version of Paul Bowles Acclaimed Novel

Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky, an ambitious if flawed screen adaptation of the famous 1949 novel of the same name by Paul Bowles, divided critics when it came out in 1991.

A tough challenge–the text was considered to be unfilmable by many Hollywood directors–Sheltering Sky was the director’s follow-up to The Last Emperor, Bertolucci’s Oscar winner which was a critical and commercial success.

Of the major reviewers, the N.Y. Times Vincent Canby was one of the few who liked the picture, describing it as “a long, beautifully modulated cry of despair.”  In contrast for Jonathan Rosnebaum of the Chicago Reader, the movie was “a disappointingly reductive adaptation.” Ultimately, both criticisms are valid as the film is sharply uneven.

Bowles, who narrates the film and appears in a cameo role, depicts a restless intellectual couple who journey to northern Africa in the hopes of rekindling their marriage, but soon fall prey to the dangers of the deserts and inhabitants that surround them.

In 1998, Bowles wrote in a new preface to his novel that “the less said about the film now, the better.”  Yet a second look, two decades later, positions the film on a higher level, both in terms of Bertolucci’s dwindling career and also in terms of international cinema.

Debra Winger and John Malkovich star as Kit and Port Moresby, a married American couple who globetrot to North Africa in the late 1940s with the hopes of re-sparking their sexual love, adding some much needed zest to what they feel is a a lackluster, stagnant life.

Along for the ride is the pair’s friend George Tunner (Campbell Scott), who soon begins having an affair with Kit.

As they struggle through the excruciating heat of Africa amidst the sudden love triangle, each of the trio sees his and her essential beliefs and values challenged, forcing them to reevaluate the very essence of their lives.

The book’s dramatic problem is also the one that plagues the film, namely, how to sustain interest (and tension) after Kit wanders off into the desert.

As scripted and enacted, all three characters seem remote–it’s impossible to relate to any of them, which keeps the entire film at a remote distance.

In moments, the movie captures the alluring existence of disaffected American Europhile adrift, even when it is based on culture collision and almost necessarily leads to alienation and self-estrangement.

Sheltering Sky also deals with recurrent themes in Bertolucci’s work: sexual ambiguity (in this case, covert or latent homosexuality) and self-indulgent decadence of affluent and educated Westerns wandering amidst malignant poverty and misery.

Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography is as dazzling as it has been in all of Bertolucci’s films with him, including The Conformist and The Last Emperor.

The powerful soundtrack, composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, won the L.A. Film Critics Best Music Award.

Detailed Plot

In 1947, three Americans arrive in Tangier: Port Moresby (John Malkovich), his wife Kit (Debra Winger), and their friend George Tunner (Campbell Scott). Planning an exotic trip deep into the Sahara Desert, Tunner observes, “We’re probably the first tourists they’ve had since the war.” “We’re not tourists,” Kit protests, “We’re travelers.” Tunner plans to return home in a few weeks, Port and Kit plan on staying for a year or two, but Tanner is there for a few weeks only (or so he says).

Awaiting transport to a hotel, the group meets Mrs. Lyle (Jill Bennett), a travel writer, and her son Eric (Timothy Spall). Port asks Kit to join him for a tour of the city, and when she rebuffs him, he leaves in anger.  He meets a prostitute and has sex with her, and then quickly leaves while being chased by a mob.

Wishing to cover up Tunner’s all-night escapade, Kit removes the covers from his bed to make it appear that he slept there. As Kit and Tunner prepare to leave, a disheveled Port arrives, mistakenly assuming that Tunner had spent the night with Kit.

Once again encountering the Lyles, they are offered a ride to their next destination, but there is no room for Tunner. Port joins the Lyles, while Kit takes the train with Tunner, and the two engage in a drunken tryst.

Suspicious of Kit’s relationship with Tunner, Port arranges for Eric Lyle to provide Tunner with transportation to Messad promising to meet him later. Eric agrees but steals Port’s passport.

In Bounoura, Port’s passport is missing, but instead of recovering it in Messad, he decides to proceed to El Ga’a with Kit in order to avoid meeting Tunner. Port contracts typhoid and dies at a post of the French Foreign Legion, leaving Kit alone in the Sahara.

Wandering in the desert, Kit is rescued by a caravan led by Belqassim (Eric Vu-An), who then disguises her as a boy and locks her. Though held captive, Kit welcomes Belqassim’s advances and the two begin an affair. But discovered by Belqassim’s wives, she is ordered to leave.  Disoriented in the marketplace, she is found in a hospital and transported back to Tangier where she began her journey. Told that Tunner is waiting for her, Kit flees into the city.


MPAA Rating: R

Running time: 138 minutes.

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

DVD: May 14, 2002