The Sheltering Sky

(Bernardo Bertolucci, UK/Italy, 1990)


A world-weary married couple (Debra Winger and John Malkovich) sit on a precipice in a desolate North African landscape. The camera observes them unflinchingly, for a painfully long time, as they struggle to talk, make love, and eventually settle for a few low, anguished moans.

For some viewers, this moment in The Sheltering Sky will be the epitome of pretentious, highfalutin' art cinema. In adapting Paul Bowles' 1948 novel about a disintegrating marriage (tartly described by literary critic Leslie Fiedler as "highbrow terror fiction"), director Bernardo Bertolucci certainly shows no qualms about taking us back to the good old days when Existential Angst was deemed art's true vocation.

Beginning his career as a '60s radical and peaking with Last Tango in Paris (1973), Bertolucci has increasingly withdrawn from the tough political questions of our age. The Last Emperor (1987) evaded the complexities of Chinese history by focussing on one man's melancholy. The Sheltering Sky trades outrageously on every exotic cliché about Africa as the dark continent in its quest for a vividly different love story.

Yet The Sheltering Sky is, in its way, a remarkable film. Bertolucci's cinematic style has always been more interesting than his characters or themes. Here, style is everything. More boldly and freely than ever before, Bertolucci weaves colour, light, music, movement and detail into a mesmerising, hallucinatory adventure.

Do not seek conventional psychological or symbolic explanations of The Sheltering Sky. Its keynote is excess: performances, images and emotions that stray far beyond the bounds of the storyline. And, in this heterogeneous way, it does capture something of the dislocation and identity loss that comes with travel and (more grandly) states of exile.

Ultimately, it is a gloriously perverse masterwork – one of the most expensive avant-garde movies ever made.

MORE Bertolucci: Besieged, The Dreamers, Little Buddha, La Luna, Stealing Beauty, Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man

© Adrian Martin April 1991

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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