The Sheltering Sky (film)

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The Sheltering Sky
Theatrical release poster by Renato Casaro
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Produced by Jeremy Thomas
Screenplay by Mark Peploe
Bernardo Bertolucci
Based on The Sheltering Sky
by Paul Bowles
Music by Ryuichi Sakamoto
Cinematography Vittorio Storaro
Edited by Gabriella Cristiani
Distributed by Warner Bros.
(Time Warner)
Release date
14 December 1990
Running time
138 minutes
Country Italy
United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $25,000,000
Box office $2,075,084

The Sheltering Sky is a 1990 British-Italian drama film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich. The film is based on the 1949 novel by Paul Bowles (who narrates the film and appears in a cameo role) about a couple who journey to northern Africa in the hopes of rekindling their marriage but soon fall prey to the dangers that surround them.


Three Americans from New York arrive in Tangier in 1947. Port Moresby (John Malkovich) and his wife Kit (Debra Winger) are accompanied by their friend George Tunner (Campbell Scott) on a trip that will take them deep into the Sahara Desert. Tunner observes "We're probably the first tourists they've had since the war," to which Kit replies "We're not tourists. We're travelers." While Tunner plans to return home in a few weeks, Port and Kit plan on staying for a year or two.

While awaiting transport to a hotel, the group meets a pair of English travelers, the Lyles – Mrs. Lyle (Jill Bennett), a travel writer, and her adult son Eric (Timothy Spall). Eric's mother keeps him constantly short of money so he is always asking for credit and loans. After arriving at the hotel, they sit in the hotel bar and are observed by an older man sitting alone at a table. This character is played by the story's author, Paul Bowles. The man narrates to himself an extract from the novel on which the film is based,

“Because neither Kit nor Port had ever lived a life of any kind of regularity, they had both made the fatal error of coming hazily to regard time as non-existent. One year was like another year. Eventually everything would happen.”

Port invites Kit to accompany him for a walk in the city. After she refuses and rebuffs his romantic advances, Port angrily leaves. During his walk he meets a pimp who introduces him to a prostitute (Amina Annabi) in a berber encampment. The two have sex and the prostitute attempts to steal his wallet. Port quickly leaves and is chased by a mob from the camp.

The next morning Tunner arrives at Kit's room to take her shopping. Not wanting Tunner to know that Port stayed out all night, she removes the covers from his bed to make it appear that he slept there. As Kit and Tunner are preparing to leave, a disheveled Port arrives. Seeing his bed, he assumes that Tunner spent the night with Kit.

Port and Kit once again encounter the Lyles and are offered a ride in their car to Boussif, their next destination, but are informed that there is no room for Tunner. Port accepts the ride with the Lyles while Kit takes the train with Tunner. Tunner and Kit drink champagne throughout the journey and awake the next morning, naked, in Kit's hotel room after a drunken tryst.

Suspicious of Kit's relationship with Tunner, Port arranges for Eric Lyle to provide Tunner with transportation to Messad on the pretext that Port and Kit will meet him later. Eric agrees but also steals Port's passport.

In Bounoura, Port discovers his passport missing. Even after being informed by local officials that the passport can be recovered in Messad, Port decides to proceed by bus to El Ga'a with Kit in order to avoid a meeting with Tunner. On the journey Port contracts typhoid. The hotel won't accommodate them from fear of infection. Kit transports the delirious Port to a French foreign legion post, but it has no doctor and she nurses him herself, becoming increasingly desperate at his condition. He eventually dies alongside her in their room. Kit leaves the body and sets off alone into the Sahara.

Kit wanders in the desert until she begs a ride from a camel caravan led by Belqassim (Eric Vu-An). After the caravan arrives at Belqassim's home far to the south in Niger, he disguises Kit as a boy and locks her in a guest house. Although held captive, Kit welcomes Belqassim's advances and the two begin an affair. Kit is soon discovered by Belqassim's wives, who order her to leave. Kit finds herself disoriented in the local marketplace and is set upon by a mob. She is eventually found, mute and almost insane, in a Catholic mission hospital by staff of the American embassy, who have been prompted to search for her by Tunner, who has found Port's grave. She is transported back to Tangier, where she began her journey, and is told that Tunner is waiting for her there. After arriving at the hotel, Kit flees into the city before Tunner can meet her.

The film ends with a quote from the novel spoken by Paul Bowles, the narrator, still sitting in the hotel bar,

“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 when we will die, 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.”


Filming locations[edit]

The film was shot in Morocco, in Tangier, Ouarzazate, Erfoud and Tamnougalt (although most of the locations named in the film are in present-day Algeria.)


The soundtrack, composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, won the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score and the LAFCA Award for Best Music.

Critical reception[edit]

The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 50 percent of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 24 reviews despite the film being a financial flop.[1] Among those praising the film was New York Times film critic Vincent Canby, who described it as a "long, beautifully modulated cry of despair."[2] In 1998, Paul Bowles wrote a new preface to the novel in which he stated "the less said about the film now, the better."[3]





  1. ^ "Rotten Tomatoes - The Sheltering Sky". Retrieved 25 May 2012. 
  2. ^ Canby, Vincent (12 December 1990). "The Sheltering Sky - New York Times Review". The New York Times. Retrieved 5 May 2013. 
  3. ^ Bowles, Paul (1998). The Sheltering Sky. The Ecco Press. p. 5. 


External links[edit]