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
What went wrong?
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."