Bernardo Bertolucci is one of the great film directors, but when he stumbles, boy he really falls.
He can do beautiful work as in The Conformist, then later do a confused, embarrassing film like Little Buddha. From work to work, Freudian mish mash alternates with political extremism. Last Tango in Paris is probably the template here. Beautiful passages of heartfelt emotional self-revelation are followed by scenes of abysmal narrative crap; great actors are asked to stretch their talents, but sometimes into embarrassing contortions.
The Sheltering Sky is one of the lesser works. I know it is suppose to be art, but really, com eon. Two unpleasant people in an unforgiving landscape amid people they don't understand, and we are suppose to find them interesting. The Sheltering Sky was filmed in Algeria, Niger, and Morocco in 1989, and I hope the film provided a better vacation for the actors than it did for the characters they play.
Based on Paul Bowles's creepy novel, the film concerns three Americans traveling through Northern Africa at mid century. Porter (John Malkovich) and Kit Moresby (Debra Winger)—note the typically "literary" unpronounceable names—are a married pair of wealthy Manhattanite pseudo intellectuals out to absorb "alien" cultures. They are accompanied by a friend, George Tunner (Campbell Scott).
Porter and Kit have a mysterious relationship, while Tunner is a naïve guy who has wandered in from a Whit Stillman movie. Eventually he wanders out. Unable to really deal with the culture around them, the couple sort of wither away, becoming hypnotized by the desert. Porter (called "Port" for short) falls ill and dies. Kit ends up for a time as a concubine in a traveling harem, her western personality completely erased.
As with most Bertolucci movies, there is a barely masked gay subtext. In fact, you can't really use the word subtext al. It's more like the fore-text. Here, the sub/fore-text concerns the weird, seemingly sexless marriage of sexual opposites (based on Bowles's own marriage to Jane Bowles?), with Tunner the trust fund layabout trying to inveigle his way into either bed. Almost every BB film has an element like this, from 1900's sharing a hooker, to the Stealing Beauty's Jeremy Irons gay character obviously dying of AIDs. Why not come with the facts of the matter and be done with it? Why play puzzling and frustrating games with the audience? There is also the added attraction of Timothy Spall's decrepit British traveler, a gay mama's boy, contributing to the theme.
For me the worst aspect of the film is that it stars John Malkovich. I'm baffled at his popularity among indie filmmakers. I do like the moment in Dangerous Liaisons when he sneers at the knowledge that the formerly virginal Uma Thurman is now his. But that's it. In a career of some 60 films ranging from Places in the Heart to I>In the Line of Fire, for me there's just that one moment. Malkovich overacts terrible. He's a ham. The bald, cross-eyed, vulpine actor seeks to draw away all attention. He is all broad bold strokes and "indicates" too much. He's like the character he plays in Rounders. Too many "tells."
But he isn't the only bad casting. The whole movie is off. Winger is wholly miscast as a upper class dilettante (the way Mia Farrow was in the similar Great Gatsby). Bertolucci likes to tell stories about a woman's sexual odyssey or awakening (Tango, Luna, Stealing Beauty, <>Besieged) and that's probably what attracted him to this tale. But, sadly, Winger looks to raw and streetwise for a pampered upper class snob who engages in gay disco witticisms ("Some day they will kick the French out of this country." "With pants like those, who can blame them?"). The Sheltering Sky is stunning to look at, but rather awful to hear.
VIDEO: Warner Home Video has done a good job with this package. There was a laser disc of the film from Warner in 1991 and one might suspect that this is the same product, easily copied over to DVD (I wish DVD boxes would just own up to this when it is true). Vittorio Storaro's usually lush cinematography looks as good and crisp and colorful as it can be. His images are so good, so carefully composed, that the film seems more meaningful than it really is. The wide screen (1.85:1) image' enhanced for widescreen televisions' is not as free of damage as it could be. There is only the occasional white speckle.
SOUND: Audio is a modest Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround that comes in English and French with subtitles in English, Spanish, French.
MENUS:A static, musical menu offers 33 chapter scene selection for the 138 minute movie.
EXTRAS: Practically extras free, this disc comes only with the trailer, meager cast and crew "information," a list of awards and nominations, and a miniscule five minute "making of" feature on bad full-frame video. Given that the film only made a couple of million dollars upon its initial release, perhaps Warner felt no obligation to pump up the disc.