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SHELTERING SKY, THE (director/writer: Bernardo Bertolucci; screenwriters: Mark Peploe/from the novel by Paul Bowles; cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro; editor: Gabriella Cristiani; music: Ryuichi Sakamoto; cast: John Malkovich (Port Moresby), Debra Winger (Kit Moresby), Campbell Scott (George Tunner), Jill Bennett (Mrs. Lyle), Timothy Spall (Eric Lyle), Eric Vu-An (Tuareg Belqassim), Amina Annabi (Mahrnia); Runtime: 140; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Jeremy thomas; Warner Home Video; 1990-UK/Italy/USA-in English)
“Filled with stunning visuals.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An austere but complex road film about a mixed up American intellectual couple, Port and Kit Moresby (John Malkovich & Debra Winger), searching for themselves in the remote parts of North Africa during the late 1940s. Noted Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci (“The Grim Reaper”/”Last Tango in Paris”/”Little Buddha”)is director and co-writer with Mark Peploe, as they adapt it from the first novel written by Paul Bowles. The writer is a transplanted New Yorker living in Morocco. Bowles also appears as the sometimes mysterious narrator, as first seen in a bar in Tangier, Morocco, where the travelers first embark from a tramp steamer in North Africa. The author recites his own words about the adventure undertaken by the couple, and thereby seems to give his blessing to this project. Though the pic can’t capture the novel’s inner thoughts of the characters, its mystic flavorings for the Arab culture or its plunge into an never ending morbidity, it’s nevertheless filled with stunning visuals, registers an appetizing exotic atmosphere, engages us in its displays of the erotic and is well-acted.

The couple, unsuccessful artists locked into a repressive ten year marriage, intend to go on an aimless adventure into the ‘off the beaten path’ North Africa and see if they can cause a spark to rekindle their sexually dead but still emotionally strong relationship and get their artistic juices flowing again. Their rich New York idler friend, George Tunner (Campbell Scott), known for his Long Island cocktail parties, talks his way into joining them for a few weeks.

On their first days in North Africa, Port has a go of it with a zaftig Arab prostitute, to return the next day filled with suspicion that the handsome but vacuous Tunner spent the night with his neurotic wife.While traveling deeper into the Sahara desert (a metaphor for the unconscious), a jealous Port wishes to lose Tunner and arranges for an obnoxious pair of English travelers, writing a tour book, the creepy Eric Lyle (Timothy Spall) and his loathsome anti-Semitic mother (Jill Bennett), to take Tunner in their auto to another city. In the meantime the married couple take a bus to a different location. When Port comes down with typhoid and dies, his wife goes on with the journey getting lost in a foreign culture she could never comprehend.

The unfilmable novel is filled with much despair and many dead spots (especially when Porter is battling his illness in a primitive village). Despite all its faults and going Hollywood with a film that needed to go in another direction, I got pulled into the moody film and could live with the grim narrative’s film version (I found the book a much richer and more rewarding experience). The talented actors got me caring about the daring romantic characters they played, who wanted to journey into the unknown and got their wish in ways that were not expected.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”