'Sheltering Sky' offers pretty, but lifeless images

January 11, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'The Sheltering Sky' Starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich.

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci.

Released by Warner Bros.


* 1/2 Don't gimme "Shelter." Gimme mercy.

"The Sheltering Sky," Bernardo Bertolucci's expensive version of Paul Bowles' cult novel of 1949, is a lengthy, dithering bore. It's like looking at a travel magazine in a foreign language: beautiful pictures, remote and inaccessible text.

Debra Winger and John Malkovich play American couple Kit and Port Moresby, traveling abroad in the late '40s. He's a composer, she's a wife, and they are, for reasons never adequately dramatized, vaguely bugged. By each other. By their traveling companion. By the trip. By existence itself. Existentialism-R-Them.

These people need a marriage counselor. Hobbies. Anything. What they don't need is a $50 million movie made about them, particularly one by a brilliant expatriate Italian intellectual who knows and sees but, on the evidence, does not feel.

What is bedeviling Port Moresby, other than, of course, the fact that he is named for a city in New Guinea? His music? He never gives it a thought. His marriage? He can take it or leave it. His quest for beauty? If so, he has an odd way of expressing it: He insists on traveling by the most uncomfortable contrivance to the most God-forsaken flyblown, dust-choked holes in the North African desert, dragging his game but bewildered wife along, and, once there, he never really looks around.

In its early going, "The Sheltering Sky" has some energy. The Moresbys arrive in the desolate city of Tangier with about 700 pieces of luggage, some nifty linen traveling clothes and some neat sunglasses. Also, they have a young man in tow, one "Tunner," hopelessly in love with Kit, hopelessly in thrall to Port, awkwardly perched between them. And also very shallow and irritating.

For a bit the film plays with the theme of the triangle, pausing to note the Moresbys' odd sleeping arrangement, watching when Mrs. turns down Mr. and so Mr. goes out in search of illicit commercial sex, while young Tunner merrily tries to please them both.

The tension between the three is played out in vivid, bitchy dialogue, helped immensely by the three actors' vividness. Malkovich, as he displayed in "Dangerous Liaisons," has a way of delivering a line like a blow from a blunt instrument, his face mute with Neanderthalic contempt. Meanwhile Winger is all prickly sensitivities, completely familiar: wealthy, intellectually pretentious without being quite intelligent, vulnerable, repressed but yearning for sexuality. And finally, completing the triad, Campbell Scott as Tunner has the rich shallow boy's preening attempt at sophistication.

But soon enough, Tunner is abandoned as the Moresbys lurch deeper into the desert in search of . . . the movie certainly doesn't know, or if it does it isn't saying. Whatever is driving Port drives him to plague and the middle passage of "The Sheltering Sky" is an ordeal by disease. You can certainly see why actors love to get sick on screen: Malkovich gets to sweat, bay, whine, wretch, cough, gag, seethe with dementia and ultimately to die.

Of course you think the movie is over. Boy, are you wrong. What follows is a 40-minute exercise in grief-therapy, nearly wordless, in which Winger's Kit gives herself up to a sheik of Araby, actually a prosperous, camel-traveling Bedouin merchant who tattoos her fingers and toes and finally deposits her in his backyard house o' love for nocturnal visits and to get away from his other 15 or so wives.

Perhaps in literature such nonsense can thrive: the novel is by reputation resonant, acerbic, unforgettable. Translated by the slick Bertolucci into coffee-table book imagery and enacted by a cast that cannot manage to find one note of human empathy or spontaneity, the movie is cold as a mackerel on ice. It's intellectual Kabuki for viewers who'd rather see than feel.

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