The Sheltering Sky

1990, Movie, R, 135 mins

Review

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Director Bernardo Bertolucci's impenetrable film follows the spiritual/romantic travels of three Americans as they try to find themselves in North Africa. Based on a minor classic by Paul Bowles that has intrigued filmmakers for years, this failed attempt to adapt existential angst for the big screen is photographed with a golden, burnished glow and exquisitely scored using musical instruments from the region in which it was filmed. However, Bertolucci has built the foundation of his film on shifting sands, and, for all its technical mastery, the movie never succeeds in capturing the true natures of its characters.

Tired of their careers and social lives, married couple Kit (Debra Winger) and Port (John Malkovich) visit North Africa not simply as tourists but as travelers eager to experience the hot, primitive locale in hopes it will rekindle their dying love for one another. Accompanying them is Turner (Campbell Scott), a superficial dandy who accommodates Kit in bed to alleviate her boredom. In North Africa, Port sleeps with a prostitute who robs him, prompting him to merely taunt her rather than to seek the return of his money. He then makes unusual travel plans, journeying into the interior with a bigoted travel writer (Jill Bennett) and her alcoholic son (Timothy Spall), who steals Port's passport. When Port is reunited with Kit and Turner, he insists they take a bus trip, during which they are attacked by a horde of flies. Slipping away from Turner, Kit and Port attempt a reconciliation, but Port then comes down with a severe case of chills and fever. After Port dies at a foreign legion post, Kit becomes unhinged, wandering into the desert, her suitcase in hand. She is abducted by a sheik who takes her to his oasis where he repeatedly rapes her then locks her in a room. She is eventually freed by one of the sheik's jealous wives. She returns to civilization, presumably a changed woman who will write a book about her experiences and the indomitability of the human spirit.

Watching this seemingly endless major studio production, one's impatience rises to the breaking point as question after question goes unanswered. Who are these superficial bores who are so intent on putting down all those around them? Why couldn't they have simply gone to a marriage counselor and spent their vacation in a remote part of Long Island? Does Bertolucci really think he suggests emotional turmoil by having Winger stare off into the blinding sun? Rarely has a movie been so crippled by an unfocused lead performance. Winger's acting doesn't suggest neurotic restlessness as much as it does a woman's desire to win a staring contest. At least Malkovich is bad in an energetic way, but when his character dies all the juice flows out of the film. We're left with a metaphysical Yvonne de Carlo costume epic. In short, the viewer never really has any reason to care about the smug, self-satisfied bores who are this film's subjects, and can only wonder why Bertolucci has lavished so much time on them. Brimming with obscure meaning and devoid of drive and fervor, the film dries up in that symbolic desert sun, the victim of its own pretensions and a casualty of trying to film something best suited to the realm of cult literature. (Violence, nudity, profanity, adult situations.) leave a comment

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