The Sheltering Sky (film)

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The Sheltering Sky
Theatrical release poster by Renato Casaro
Directed byBernardo Bertolucci
Screenplay by
Based onThe Sheltering Sky
by Paul Bowles
Produced byJeremy Thomas
CinematographyVittorio Storaro
Edited byGabriella Cristiani
Music byRyuichi Sakamoto
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • 14 December 1990 (1990-12-14)
Running time
138 minutes
CountriesUnited Kingdom
Budget$25 million
Box office$2 million

The Sheltering Sky is a 1990 drama film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich. The film is based on the 1949 novel of the same name by Paul Bowles (who appears in a cameo role) about a couple who journey to North Africa in the hopes of rekindling their marriage but soon fall prey to the dangers that surround them. The story culminates with the man falling severely ill in a very remote area of the Sahara desert, from where the events turn catastrophic.



Three Americans from New York arrive in Oran, French Algeria in 1947. Port Moresby and his wife Kit are accompanied by their friend George Tunner 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, Mrs. Lyle, a travel writer, and Eric, her adult son. 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.

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 in a Berber encampment. The two have sex and the prostitute attempts to steal his wallet. Port quickly leaves and is chased from the camp by a mob.

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 Boucif, their next destination, but are informed that there is no room for Tunner. Port accepts the ride with the Lyles while Kit and Tunner take the train. Tunner and Kit drink champagne and awake the next morning 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 fever. 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 beside 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 train led by a Targui, Belqassim. After the caravan arrives at his home in Niger, Belqassim 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, 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.



Critical reception


On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, 45% of 29 critics gave the film a positive review, with an average rating of 5.4/10. The website's critics consensus reads: "The Sheltering Sky puts its talented stars at odds with a misguided and largely unsatisfying adaptation of potentially unfilmable source material."[1] Among those praising the film was The New York Times film critic Vincent Canby, who described it as a "long, beautifully modulated cry of despair."[2] Roger Ebert gave the movie two stars, stating he "was left with the impression of my fingers closing on air."[3]



Author Raj Chandarlapaty opines that Bertolucci's movie does a "remarkable job sweetening the picture of Belqassim for today's viewing audience", as opposed to the "erratic brutishness" of the novel's character.[4]

In 1998, Paul Bowles wrote a new preface to the novel in which he stated "the less said about the film now, the better."[5]

Awards and nominations

Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Boston Society of Film Critics Awards[6] Best Cinematography Vittorio Storaro (also for Dick Tracy) Won
British Academy Film Awards[7] Best Cinematography Vittorio Storaro Won
Best Production Design Gianni Silvestri Nominated
Golden Ciak Awards Best Film Bernardo Bertolucci Won
Best Director Won
Best Cinematography Vittorio Storaro Won
Best Editing Gabriella Cristiani Nominated
Best Production Design Gianni Silvestri Nominated
Golden Globe Awards[8] Best Director Bernardo Bertolucci Nominated
Best Original Score Ryuichi Sakamoto and Richard Horowitz Won
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards[9] Best Cinematography Vittorio Storaro Runner-up
Best Music Score Ryuichi Sakamoto and Richard Horowitz Won
Nastro d'Argento Best Director Bernardo Bertolucci Nominated
Best Cinematography Vittorio Storaro Won
National Society of Film Critics Awards[10] Best Actress Debra Winger 3rd Place
New York Film Critics Circle Awards[11] Best Director Bernardo Bertolucci Runner-up
Best Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro Won



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


  1. ^ "The Sheltering Sky". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved 3 May 2024.
  2. ^ Canby, Vincent (12 December 1990). "The Sheltering Sky - New York Times Review". The New York Times. Retrieved 5 May 2013.
  3. ^ "The Sheltering Sky movie review (1991) | Roger Ebert".
  4. ^ The Beat Generation and Counterculture: Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac; Raj Chandarlapaty; Peter Lang, 2009; page 36
  5. ^ Bowles, Paul (1998). The Sheltering Sky. The Ecco Press. pp. 5. ISBN 9780880015820.
  6. ^ "BSFC Winners: 1990s". Boston Society of Film Critics. 27 July 2018. Retrieved 5 July 2021.
  7. ^ "BAFTA Awards: Film in 1991". BAFTA. 1991. Retrieved 16 September 2016.
  8. ^ "The Sheltering Sky – Golden Globes". HFPA. Retrieved 28 July 2021.
  9. ^ "The 16th Annual Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards". Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Retrieved 5 July 2021.
  10. ^ "Past Awards". National Society of Film Critics. 19 December 2009. Retrieved 5 July 2021.
  11. ^ "1990 New York Film Critics Circle Awards". Mubi. Retrieved 5 July 2021.