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The Sheltering Sky (1990) Review: A Quest for Self-Discovery!

A woman depicted in The Sheltering Sky movie poster running away in the desert.

In their rhapsodic adaptation of Paul Bowles’ existentially bleak 1949 novel, Mark Peploe and Bernardo Bertolucci have crafted a mesmerizing film titled “The Sheltering Sky”. This film elegantly portrays themes of intercultural exploration, sex, loneliness, and spiritual journey.

While the film may not appeal to everyone due to its weaker narrative compared to the novel, literature enthusiasts will find this exceptional film to be an extraordinary journey that takes the audience on an unconventional ride.

Introduction: “The Sheltering Sky” Adaptation

“The Sheltering Sky,” adapted from Paul Bowles 1949 novel that was listed as one of the top 100 works of English literature by Time magazine, was brought to the big screen in 1990 by director Bernardo Bertolucci. The film depicts the exotic journey of a couple traveling to North Africa in the hope of reviving their stagnant and despairing marriage.

It is a journey of self-discovery as American couple Port and Kit, who struggle to communicate despite their deep love for each other, attempt to build a Western fortress in the middle of the desert. Their search for self-awareness leads to the brink of losing each other in this captivating story.

In his debut novel, Paul Bowles delves into the solitude of the human soul and questions the state of loneliness, while approaching the spiritual decline of Westerners in the mysterious complexity of the East. Bowles, who spent 53 years of his 89-year life in Morocco as a writer, traveler, and music ethnologist, fitting five novels, fourteen short stories, and three volumes of poetry, as well as numerous translations, including traditional, unwritten Moroccan folk tales, into this period. His literary language and flawless descriptions of travel writing allow him to examine himself while exploring the loneliness of the human soul.

Debra Winger as Kit and John Malkovich as Port from The Sheltering Sky, seated with glasses adorning their eyes.

Despite evidence of earlier explorers who set foot in continental America before him, Christopher Columbus, the Genoese navigator whom history has attributed great significance as the discoverer of the continent, set out on his journey to satisfy his adventurous spirit and acquire the legendary wealth of the mystical East when he found his home to be too confining. Since then, the East has become the center of attraction for all Western romantics, intellectuals, and city dwellers who seek inspiration for their works or embark on journeys to find themselves.

In this story of two travelers, the reasons for embarking on such a journey can vary greatly – seeking one’s dreams, new riches, a new home, or simply the thrill of adventure. But for those who feel lost, aimless, or with a rebellious spirit, this journey can also symbolize a perpetual exile, as is the case in “The Sheltering Sky”…

The Journey of Self-Discovery

“Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home.” — Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

After World War II, three young Americans leave behind the urban beauty of New York to seek new experiences in Tangier. Port is a composer, his wife Kit a writer, and their friend Tunner is part of Long Island high society.

Port and Kit, who define themselves as travelers rather than tourists, intend to experience North African culture and climate, taste the exotic, and overcome things that are forbidden for them.

Despite the great restlessness among them, Port and Kit, a married couple who have been together for about 10 years, continue their journey as travelers who move slowly, even for years, without longing to return home after a week or a few months like tourists, but unable to belong anywhere. Thus, they, along with their close friend George Tunner, seek to distance themselves from the West, which fell into a crisis of meaning after World War II, and isolate themselves from the modern world to find their lost identities in the infinite, incomprehensible, and motionless emptiness of the Sahara Desert… However, they cannot escape the consequences of the mistakes they made throughout their lives, which lead them to new questioning, endless arguments with each other, and most of all, infinite loneliness even when they are together.

A Love Story: Dissatisfaction and Unhappiness

In the words of Montaigne, “the soul is always the same, no matter where it is in distress.” This unique story, which evokes the extraordinariness of our lives with its distinctive language and does not repeat the clichéd models of existence, has found its way into the lens of Italian director Bertolucci at a time when a new interest in the East is awakening. It joins his filmography as the second part of the Oriental trilogy, alongside “The Last Emperor” (1987) and “Little Buddha” (1993).

Set against the stunning landscapes of Morocco, Algeria, and Niger, and brought to life by the performances of Debra Winger, John Malkovich, and Campbell Scott, this poignant tale of love and loss explores the complexity of the relationship between the desert, which serves as an expression of the physical closeness between two lovers, and the labyrinthine structure of the cities, which reflects the complexity of their emotional connection. Through these magnificent visuals, we are forced to confront ourselves as we experience a cinematic journey.

At its core, the film is a love story that expresses the dissatisfaction and unhappiness that can arise within a relationship that, despite being fueled by love, cannot find peace. As Bertolucci himself has said, it is the story of two emotionally complicated individuals, told in a simple way. However, like other Western travelers who have sought to discover the “East” since the Middle Ages, the various locations and people that the characters encounter also express an “orientalist” perspective, subtly hinting at the East-West dichotomy.

Debra Winger as Kit from The Sheltering Sky, looking through a glass with reflections appearing on the surface.

The film’s awareness of time points to the backwardness of the East and the continuing process of this backwardness, while its spatial awareness of the characters reflects the realization that the West is in a state of irreversible decay and dissolution.

The East as an Attraction for Westerners

The film is about the vastness of experience that educated, bookish, and somewhat weary American intellectuals cannot understand by simply reading about it in a place where civilization draws its boundaries. In Bertolucci’s film “The Sheltering Sky,” based on Paul Bowles’ novel in which he covertly writes about his own sexual longings, Bowles himself appears both as the narrator and with grace at the beginning and end of the film. The cinematography of the novel, which Bertolucci consciously constructs in two disparate parts due to his own cultural disillusionment leaving Western ways behind, begins with the arrival of three Americans from New York to Tangier.

The first half of the film is built upon the cunning maneuvers, dialogues, narratives, and mutual struggles in which Port, Kit, and Tunner test their loyalty to each other during their travels, revealing their characteristic structures. As the film progresses towards the second half, the flow changes direction towards the lonely, sad, and melancholic states of the characters in the life-or-death process that begins with Port’s capture by Tifo.

After Port’s death in a foreign legion outpost, Kit’s mind becomes confused and she aimlessly wanders in the desert with her bag. Her mystical journey, which is aimed towards unconsciousness and forgetfulness, finally progresses towards a Saharan mystery where she becomes part of a harem, locked in a room, disguised as a child, and with a young Tuareg tribal member who is her lover.

As the film progresses towards the depths of the desert, unlike the intense dialogues of the first part, an inner journey and existential impasses begin to manifest in an exotic world where familiar words no longer carry much meaning. The first and second halves of the film, sharply separated by cinematic techniques, create an anarchic confusion with a narrative that is outside the general consensus, but as the film approaches its end, the incompatibility becomes a perfect harmony that completes this spiritual journey in a unique way.

Thus, the plot that begins with a search for the self in lostness takes its place in our lives as a bedside masterpiece that provocatively and comprehensively conveys the legacy of a lived experience that grasps the world we are in, in the spiritual opposition of the relationship between America-Western civilization and men and women.

Debra Winger as Kit and John Malkovich as Port from The Sheltering Sky, lying in the desert. Port leans lovingly into Kit's lap.

Conclusion: “The Sheltering Sky” as an Extraordinary Journey

With a history spanning 128 years, cinema is now widely accepted as the seventh art form and since the birth of electronic media, films have had a significant impact on our understanding of the world and ourselves. Cinema has become one of the most important ideological devices in social sciences and cultural studies, with both overt and covert references being used to portray “the other” and even to legitimize different national identities and nationalist rhetoric. In this context, cinema has played a significant role in creating and demonstrating intercultural ontological and epistemological distinctions through its depiction of characters and themes.

For those unfamiliar with the novel on which it is based, the film “The Sheltering Sky” may seem like an eccentric, harsh drama about a group of strangers who become increasingly hostile towards each other as they travel deeper into the desert. However, the film is actually a work that builds its story around the contexts mentioned above. It depicts the journey of a troubled Western intellectual couple to North Africa, where orientalist motifs are woven into the story. Thus, the film portrays mysticism and mystery against the reality of the West, tradition against the modern structure of the West, and clans and Bedouins, who are often seen as backward, against the developed society of the West. It also portrays sexual deviance, which is often attributed to the East, and the eerie world of the East.

People see things differently; while some may look at the cold winter sun, others may burn in the desert heat. But one thing is for sure: despite our differences, we all live under the same merciful sky. Like a castle made of sand in the desert, when we look towards the horizon with our emotions that crumble upon touch, we may miss what love truly means. With our egos soaring high, we often fail to realize what we have until it’s gone.

As Paul Bowles said,

“Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” — Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

But nothing is infinite…

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Last modified: October 17, 2023