The Sheltering Sky (1990) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The recipe for a human being is based on DNA broth, but the final dish has been spiced so heavily by cultural influences that the original broth can be almost unrecognizeable. As author Paul Bowles said when discussing his novel "The Sheltering Sky" in a 1981 Paris Review interview: "Everyone is isolated from everyone else. The concept of society is like a cushion to protect us from the knowledge of that isolation .. a fiction that serves as an anaesthetic." That novel, and this Bernardo Bertolucci film inspired by it, are about removing that figurative anesthetic, by eradicating the societal and cultural anchors of our existence.

Many intellectuals, particularly idle American ones, have wondered hypothetically what it would be like if they could free themselves from their cultural assumptions, hoping to isolate the intrinsic person beneath. This is the story of two such people, a couple named Kit and Port Moresby. (Port Moresby, get it? It's the capital of Papua New Guinea, and the very symbol of a truly exotic port of call). Kit and Port hoped that removing their cultural moorings could leave their "spiritual essences."

The couple viewed North Africa as the perfect place to break away from the assumptions of Euro-centric Christian culture. They immersed themselves in the local culture, learned to communicate in the local languages, learned to live as the natives lived, without Western hotels or restaurants. They hoped not only to discover their intrinsic selves, but also to rediscover their connection to each other. They gradually sought purer experiences, eventually fleeing the last vestiges of civilization as we know it, making their way deep into the Sahara.

When Port died, Kit went completely native and took up with a local Bedouin. At that point in the story, the audience is not supposed to know whether she had found her mind, or lost it. Neither, for that matter, did she. Her fascination with an exotic culture eventually turned into a nightmarish, transformative experience. Trapped with the nomads, she couldn't even communicate, and thus achieved her original desire, although perhaps not in the way she originally conceived. The only thing left of her in the desert, without America, without money, without language, without friends, was her essence, whatever that is.

Bernardo Bertolucci stayed as faithful to the novel as possible. The author had written the story while living in North Africa in 1947, so Bertolucci actually filmed everything on location there, and used the novel's creator, Paul Bowles, as a consultant and on-screen narrator. Bertolucci was able to produce the correct visual experience on film. The details of place and time are not only accurate, but rendered spectacularly. I promise that you will be impressed by the sights and sounds. The Sheltering Sky is a tremendous travelogue.

And a tremendous failure.

When this film was released, Bertolucci was coming off The Last Emperor, which was nominated for nine Oscars and won every single blessed one of 'em. It took in a solid $44 million at the North American box office as well. In the wake of that success, The Sheltering Sky was anticipated eagerly by Bertoluccis's many fans, but it disappeared almost immediately, amid half-hearted reviews and poor word-of-mouth. It grossed only $2 million dollars, and must have lost a fortune for everyone involved.

What went wrong?

Two things.

The first and most obvious is that some books were never meant to be movies. The essence of the book consists of the interior processes of Kit and Port. Those were not easy to convert to a watchable story. The film moves slowly and relies on too much voice-over exposition.

The second is that Bertolucci's casting choices were questionable. It seems to me that John Malkovich and Debra Winger were too world-weary and condescending for roles that would have played out better if portrayed as fragile idealists unable to understand the situation they were really entering. Malkovich was an especially odd choice to play the doomed Port. Port is supposed to be a beautiful, spoiled, but sincere rich liberal kid who can't really relate to other people very well because he's too self-absorbed. You might easily picture Robert Redford in the role. Malkovich does a lot of things well, but beauty and sincerity are not among them. He brings his usual creepy air of superiority to the part, which adds a mocking tone from the start. He was so condescending in his precious pseudo-intellectual babble about the distinction between an traveler and a tourist, for example, that when he became terminally ill, my reaction was, "What did you think would happen when you drank the local water, ate street food, and had casual sex with the local people? Weren't you committing suicide in the first place? You shouldn't be too surprised at your success."


DVD info from Amazon

  • Theatrical trailer(s)

  • Behind-the-Scenes Featurette

  • All-New Digital Transfer

  • Widescreen anamorphic format, 1.85;1

Book info from Amazon


Debra Winger shows all of her body, in several scenes. (There is only a fleeting look at her breasts, but many views of her crotch and her bottom)

Amina Annabi shows off a magnificent pair of large breasts as a North African prostitute

Eric Vu-An shows his buns, as Winger's Bedouin lover

John Malkovich shows his penis and the top of his butt in a scene where he goes to Winger's bedside.

The Critics Vote

  • Ebert 2/4

The People Vote ...

  • with their dollars: it grossed $2 million. I don't know what the budget was, but it was a lot, and the movie must have lost a fortune.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. Arty, philosophical movie from a book which is about interior processes. It looks and sounds magnificent. Most people will find it tedious, but if it sounds like your kind of movie, it is done superbly, including a lot of rare Debra Winger nudity. Ebert and other reviewers suggest following up the movie by reading the book, which many consider the best novel written by an Englishman since World War 2.

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