Having read and reread a lot of Paul Bowles’s writings, I wanted again to watch Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1990 movie of The Sheltering Sky, in which Bowles appears in scenes near the beginning and the end as a laconic narrator. Despite his presence, the voice which is so important to the greatness of the novel is lost, and viewers of the movie see what Kit does, but the reasons for her increasingly odd behavior must be guessed at by viewers.
There’s a lot more movement than there is action in “The Sheltering Sky.” Some time shortly after the end of the Second World War, a pair of world-wandering Americans, Kit and Port Moresby (Debra Winger and John Malkovich) who very much resemble then-composer Paul Bowles and writer Jane Bowles, arrive in Tangier with a mountain of luggage and a handsome young male traveling companion, George Tunner (Campbell Scott, more handsome than I remember his being back then). Tangier is insufficiently exotic for them, and they set off for the desolate interior. Separately and together, they do some ill-advised things putting themselves into multiple kinds of danger. What is ailing their souls remains mysterious. Kit and Port do not sleep together, but stay together, puzzling Tunner.
As a travelogue, the movie has some very striking photography by Vittorio Storaro(who has photographed Bertolucci films going back to “The Conformist” in 1970, plus “Apocalypse Now,” and Warren Beatty films starting with “Reds”) of North African deserts and mountains (it was shot in Algeria and Mali, as well as Morocco) and the fabled interior city of Timbuktu (Timbuctoo in the old spelling) with its mud-brick city walls and edifices. The mounds of a Tuareg trader’s backside are as lovingly photographed when he mounts Kit as was the desert through which his camel moved en route to Timbuktu. There are sex scenes with a variety of black and white participants and titillating frontal nudity for both Winger and Malkovich.
“The Sheltering Sky” has the most realistically annoying flies I’ve ever seen on screen. The night bus ride with swarms of flies on the faces of the passengers is memorable. Between the flies, the typhoid, the predatory nomads, and the obvious discomfort of the accommodations, “The Sheltering Sky” is not likely to encourage viewers to rush to the North African interior. (Many of Iceland’s landscapes are as stark, but the natives are friendlier and the accommodations considerably more comfortable.)
The movie is scenic but also talky, though the talk is banal, boring the characters as well as the audience. The visual aspects are superb and the actors do the best they can with an opaque screenplay and unsympathetic characters to play (with the exception of Eric Vu-An, the veiled camel-jockey who rescues/ravages Kit after she has wandered off alone into the Sahara). The screenplay fails and the running time of two hours and eighteen minutes is not justified. (Bertolucci is not exactly notable for fast-paced action! “The Last Emperor” was quite long, though covering something like seven decades of tumultuous times. I found “1900” insufferable, and “Last Tango in Paris” considerably less daring and intriguing than Pauline Kael did… On the other hand, I liked “Little Buddha” more than most; again for Storaro’s gorgeous cinematography). Ryuchi Sakamoto’s music in it is appropriately haunting.
I can understand why many viewers would not have the patience to stay with Kit, though the cinematography (and basic familiarity with the worldview of Paul Bowles) got me through. Four stars for those who want to see Bowles and/or North African cities and desert vistas, two stars for those wanting plot-driven movies, and three for those wanting character-driven ones. The visual transfer is superb, though, like other sweeping desert vista pictures (Lawrence of Arabia, The English Patient, the middle of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). A huge screen enhances the impact.
©2003, Stephen O. Murray