The Sheltering Sky Review

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Looking to give meaning and structure tot their life together an artistic couple travel through africa.


More than 40 years after it was first published, Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky' is at last transferred to the screen by the Oscar-sweeping combination of producer Jeremy Thomas and director Bernardo Bertolucci, assisted by all the principal members of The Last Emperor team and starring John Malkovich, possibly the hottest talent in contemporary American acting. Expectations for this international 138-minute epic could naturally be described as fairly high. All the more disappointing then that The Sheltering Sky turns out to be a shallow, confused, frankly boring piece of work. Beautifully photographed, of course, but boring nonetheless.

The essential problem lies in the abject failure to present any of the principal characters as remotely worth worrying about, as if the detached, near-existential worldview of Port (Malkovich) and Kit (Winger) in Bowles' book automatically bars any cinematic treatment that might whip up the odd sympathetic vote. Two travellers searching for a life and each other on the African continent, they appear here as little more than spoilt brats, slumming their way through other people's misery, the very first representatives of Club 18-30.

John Malkovich does an acceptable job of playing John Malkovich, all pursed lips and increasingly affected mannerisms, Debra Winger is hopelessly miscast and seems, frankly, somewhat off her rocker from start to finish while poor Paul Bowles is reduced to sitting in a bar, like some sort of philosophical wino, muttering away about the meaning of life. At least while Malkovich is still alive, there is the vague possibility that something interesting might this way eventually come as he, Winger and the capable Campbell Scott bonk their way around the continent. After a seemingly interminable deathbed scene, however, the film descends into little more than a glossy advertisment for holidays in North Africa, long, lingering shots of various nomads riding their camels across the desert and the movie equivalent of tourist snapshots of these frightful people in their markets, all accompanied by the numbing drum patterns of The Master Musicians Of Jajouka. By the time Winger finally makes it back to relative civilisation - after a lengthy soujourn holed up as the mistress of a local tribesman - one is almost surprised to find that Bowles' spot in the bar has not been taken by Andy Kershaw.

The latest example of the current movie malaise of the hollow triumph of cinematography over human emotion - everything from Dick Tracy to Mo' Better Blues - The Sheltering Sky will undoubtedly, and rightly, be hailed as a supreme piece of visual artistry, showing off exotic locations in an extraordinary light and never flinching in its presentation of period detail. Scratch this gorgeous surface, however, and little will be found but a bunch of badly-defined characters and an awful lot of camels. Did someone at the back say Ishtar?.

Glossy, fabulous African scenery, not much depth and badly cast.