Film review: Sheltering Sky, The

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 15 1991 12:00 a.m. MST

"The Sheltering Sky" is the kind of "art" film that discriminating audiences either embrace or find incredibly boring and pretentious. And, in the end, that seems to pretty much sum up most of Bernardo Bertolucci's movies.

Take them or leave them, "The Conformist," "Last Tango in Paris," "1900," "Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man" and even Bertolucci's most accessible picture, the Oscar-winning "The Last Emperor," are not easy films. They are daring, risky ventures all, and the Italian writer-director seems to love rolling the dice.

Likewise, "The Sheltering Sky" is a demanding film, but for me it falls into the realm of those least likable.

Based on Paul Bowles' 1949 novel, the film focuses on Kit Moresby (played by Debra Winger) and, to a lesser extent, her husband, Port (John Malkovich), who are remnants of the postwar idle rich. They consider themselves intellectuals, noting that they are "travelers," not "tourists." They are also rather arrogant in their romantic notions about North Africa and seem to be in the dry-rot final stages of a disintegrating marriage.

As the film opens, they embark on a voyage of self-discovery in Tangiers, in the company of their friend, George (Campbell Scott), who is not so secretly in love with Kit. As their trip becomes more of a trial, however, George abandons them.

Kit and Port explore North Africa in an attempt to understand the exotic and the forbidden, while becoming more self-indulgent along the way. Initially there seems to be a desire to save their marriage, but it becomes gradually less important the farther they get from the "civilized" world.

Eventually, a tragedy occurs — or is it? — plunging Kit into something akin to a state of shock as she links up with a wandering tribe and becomes a sex-slave of sorts.

Over the course of the film's nearly 2 1/2 hours, Bertolucci seems more interested in painting pretty pictures than telling a story, and there are long stretches when even the most patient moviegoers will wonder if it's worth all the vapid dialogue spouted by vapid characters. True, the pictures are very pretty, and there are some intriguing ideas set up periodically, but most of the way I just found the narrative tedious and the characters obnoxious.

It is no doubt quite difficult to portray self-indulgence without the work itself taking on an air of arrogance; and certainly "The Sheltering Sky" fails on that level, despite the impressive location photography, a fine score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and an excellent lead performance by Debra Winger.

Some moviegoers will also no doubt be offended by the film's graphic sex scenes, not to mention a peculiar closeup shot of Malkovich's genitals at one point.

"The Sheltering Sky" is rated R for quite a bit of sex and nudity, with some profanity and violence.

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