Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Sheltering Sky

Originally Written and Posted at on 8/17/07 w/ Additional Edits.

1987's The Last Emperor marked a triumph for Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci as the film won several Academy Awards including Best Picture and a Best Director prize for Bertolucci. Following its award-winning success, Bertolucci and producer Jeremy Thomas decided to embark on another ambitious film that was to follow The Last Emperor in a trilogy of epic films relating to outside cultures and landscapes that would conclude with 1993's Little Buddha. For the second part of his trilogy, Bertolucci released a film based on Paul Bowles' novel of a New York couple traveling to North Africa with a friend as their own marriage disintegrates where the attempt to save their marriage ends in despair. The book from 1947 was finally made into a film for 1990's The Sheltering Sky.

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci with a script written by Mark Peploe, The Sheltering Sky is an ambitious, epic, romantic film about a couple trying to save their marriage in North Africa only to find faults and failures that also included the involvement of other people. Shot on location in Morocco, Algeria, and Niger, the film unveils some of the most breathtaking images of the desert shot by Bertolucci's longtime cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Starring John Malkovich, Debra Winger, Campbell Scott, Timothy Spall, Jill Bennett, and Paul Bowles as the film’s narrator. The Sheltering Sky, despite its breathtaking images, is a clumsy, dense film from Bernardo Bertolucci.

It's the late 1940s as an American couple named Port (John Malkovich) and Kit Moresby (Debra Winger) arrive onto a port in North Africa accompanied by their friend Tunner (Campbell Scott). While Tunner hopes to spend a month at least in Tangier, the Moresby are travelers hoping to spend maybe a year or two in North Africa to explore its wonders. Their marriage however, is failing as they spend their time alone and sleep in different rooms. Tunner sleeps in another room while he often tries to court Kit. When Port describes a dream that upsets Kit, they receive an unexpected visit by and Englishman named Eric Lyle (Timothy Spall) and his mother (Jill Bennett). Planning to travel through the desert for their next trip, Port wanders around Tangier where he meets a man named Smail (Ben Smail).

After encountering a little village and tribe where he encounters a hooker (Amina Annabi), she attempts to steal his wallet but fails as he nearly gets mugged. Upon returning to the Grand Hotel, Port begins to suspect a possible affair between Kit and Tunner. With Kit deciding to travel with Tunner by train, Port is accompanied by the Lyles on their trip through the desert to a nearby town. With both parties arriving, it's clear that Kit has been attracted to Tunner as they keep their affair a secret. Port meanwhile, is often asked by Eric for a loan about a possible endeavor. Port gives him a bit of money to be rid of the Lyles as he and Kit go on a bike ride through the desert. In another attempt to save their marriage, they go to a spot where they see the beautiful Sahara Desert. Unfortunately, their lack of passion and the years they've been in have made them cold.

Now going through the desert by bus, the Moresby and Tunner travel yet again as Tunner finds everything to be frustrating as he decides to leave the journey. Port and Kit continue their North African journey unaware of an epidemic coming through the various villages as flies are surrounding them. Port finds himself ill all of a sudden as Kit begins to worry. They continue on their trip to another town but Port is becoming increasingly ill. Things get worse as they find themselves in the middle of a sandstorm. With Kit now worried, she now fears for her own future as she suddenly finds herself being seduced and accompanied by a mysterious young man named Belqassm (Eric Vu-An). Taken to another village, she finds herself in the middle of a culture clash wondering what has this journey really been about.

Given Bertolucci's love of exotic cultures and existential explorations, the film is really about a journey gone wrong with jaded intellectuals being completely unaware of the world that is foreign to them. With the text from this famous novel by Paul Bowles, it's clear that the film's major weakness is in its adaptation. Those who haven't read the book (including myself), definitely will be bewildered by the film's unique narrative. Yet, it makes for a very awkward and detached sense of wonder for the audience who haven't read this book. Even for someone who might've read this book will notice a lot of missing subplots and things from that book.

The film's major weakness is the script by Bertolucci and brother-in-law Mark Peploe, largely because there's not much back story for the film’s protagonists nor is there any are they very interesting in some ways. Port is a self-indulgent and very pretentious though he has some redeeming qualities. Kit is also as detached since she often spends her time in a hotel room alone or with Tunner. Bertolucci, the director, does seem to make up for it with his visual composition and staging. Yet, because of the material he's working on, some of the drama doesn't feel right and the dialogue between Kit and Port is very dense that it seems that a character like Tunner and the audience have a hard time understanding their motives.

The film's narrative is wonderfully structured but uneven as well. Yet, it is unique in some ways since the first part is about Kit's unconventional take on the journey to Africa, the second act being about Kit and Port's disintegrating marriage. Yet, it all goes well despite some road bumps and then comes this third act. All of a sudden, it starts to feel and look like a different film with Kit now being the center of attention. Yet, it makes the entire film feel clunky despite some great scenes that Bertolucci has created and such. Yet, despite all of his intentions and his approach to the storytelling, Bertolucci does create a film that is interesting yet very flawed.

Longtime cinematographer Vittorio Storaro brings a majestic, gorgeous look to the film that makes up for any flaw that it has. Some of the film's interiors including a shot of sunlight in a hotel room looks very close to the old-school, Technicolor cinematography of late 50s/early 60s cinema. The exteriors also has an old-school feel that includes amazing shots of the desert with wonderful set-ups and epic scopes that has to be seen on a widescreen format. Storaro's use of colors whether it would be the blue-evening light or yellow sunlight is always jaw-dropping as his work with Bertolucci as well as other directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Warren Beatty is often top-notch.

Production designers Gianni Silvestri and Ferndinando Scarfiotti along with art director Andrew Sanders create a unique look to the film's period design from the cars to the cramped hotel rooms the Moresby lives. Given the locations they're in, each set piece is wonderfully decorated to give that sense of authenticity. Costume designer James Acheson also brings wonder to the costumes with the sheik-like clothing in the third act, the suits that the men wear, and the 40s dresses that Debra Winger wears throughout for almost the entire film. Editor Gabriella Cristiani brings a nice, elliptical pacing of sorts to the film while using intense cuts to convey the suspense of drama of some of the film's scenes. Sound editor Don Sharpe helps with the film's amazing sound to convey the horror of sandstorms and other surroundings in the desert.

Then there's the amazingly haunting, intensely dramatic score by Ryuchi Sakamoto that is filled with bass-heavy arrangements, lots of strings, and chords that convey the film’s bleak tone. Sakamoto's score is really one of the film’s highlights that also includes traditional, North African music from Richard Horowitz that is filled with a lot of rhythm and mysticism as the land itself. Along with several different kinds of music from the late 1940s, the film's soundtrack is rich in its diversity.

Finally, there's the film's cast that doesn't exactly feature a large ensemble but memorable performances and appearances. There's a few notable small roles from Amina Annabi and Ben Smail as Tangier natives along with a cameo from Italian film starlet Nicoletta Braschi as a French woman in a cafe scene early in the film. Eric Vu-An is good in his mysterious role as a nomad traveler who makes most of his appearance with just his look. A very exotic look who manages to charm Debra Winger. Jill Bennett and Timothy Spall are fine as the irritating Lyle with Bennett as this posh, smug photographer and Spall as a slimy, wormy thief who wants to be rid of his mother. In many ways, maybe this is why Spall got the role of Wormtail in the Harry Potter films.

In one of his early film roles, Campbell Scott is good as the charming, somewhat ignorant Tunner who seduces Kit while trying to understand their fascination with traveling. Scott makes the most of his role despite the fact that it's very underdeveloped. It's just a caricature of a lot of tourist-like characters as Scott would later do better work in the years to come. Debra Winger is fine in her role as Kit but doesn't seem give any real kind of life to the role. I'm not sure whether it's the character or Winger's performance but the character of Kit isn't that interesting. Sure, she looks pretty but her character just seems very detached from everything. Winger is a fine actress and is still better than most stars, it's just that she often seems overlooked.

John Malkovich is actually the film's best performance but that isn't saying much either. While there's some scenes where he and Winger are great together. There's some that don't work which is due to the script. Yet, Malkovich makes the most of it with his self-absorbed, pretentious performance that is always fun to watch. Malkovich usually often would rise above the material, especially as clunky as a film like this. Though his character isn't that interesting, Malkovich does pull all the stops, even as his character starts to become ill that shows wonderful dramatic range.

When the film was released in 1990, expectations were very high considering that it's a film by Bernardo Bertolucci and that he had just come off winning 9 Oscars for The Last Emperor. Instead, the film received mixed reviews and mediocre box office that it was a huge disappointment. Though there were praises towards the film's score and Vittorio Storaro's cinematography, it was a disappointment of sorts from Bertolucci. While he would return with a somewhat better film for 1993's Little Buddha, it was clear that Bertolucci had seen better days.

Despite some of the film's major flaws, The Sheltering Sky is still an interesting yet clunky film from Bernardo Bertolucci and company. While compared to some of his masterpieces like The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, and The Last Emperor along with other great films like 1900 and The Dreamers, this film is really minor in some ways. Fans of Bertolucci will enjoy the film's epic scope and scenery, unless they hadn't read the book, they will feel like this is minor work. In the end, despite some of those triumphs. The Sheltering Sky is a good film from Bernardo Bertolucci but one would expect a lot more from the Italian auteur.

Bernardo Bertolucci Films: (La Commare Secca) - (Before the Revolution) - (Partners) - (The Spider's Stratagem) - The Conformist - Last Tango in Paris - 1900 - (La Luna) - (Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man) - (The Last Emperor) - Little Buddha - Stealing Beauty - (Besieged) - The Dreamers - (Me & You)

© thevoid99 2011

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