The Sheltering Sky
ften we watch a Hou Hsiao-hsien film as if it was Jerry Bruckheimer product. Maybe The Wedding Crashers has more in common with Preston Sturges than audiences thought. Thanks to the relative ease with which the modern consumer can attain a restored older film or once out-of-print foreign film, A Second Take allows a writer to describe why a film was overrated or overlooked the first time. We do not expect our readers to agree, which is precisely the point: consensus occludes independent thinking.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1975 film 1900 has a circuitous history with its American audience. When first released, this five-hours-plus epic of the intertwined lives of two Italian men, born on the same day in 1901 to different classes and political outlooks, was a commercial flop in the U.S. Then in 1995—the year Bertolucci said he wanted to embrace a wider audience—the film was re-released in the U.S. This version, an hour shorter, has achieved enduring recognition among audiences and critics alike. Reflecting on 1900’s differing stateside receptions, two decades apart, Bilge Ebiri wrote in Senses of Cinema that, in retrospect, a “U.S. studio releasing a Communist film at the height of the Cold War seems downright surreal even now.”
Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky (1990), adapted from the 1949 novel by Paul Bowles, is another film whose time has come belatedly. It was only minor success in America and many critics disliked it, finding it boring and mistaking it for apolitical. Claretta Tonetti has written in some detail about this. For example, Pauline Kael complained about miscasting and spoke for many when she quipped that the characters traveled “deep into monotony.”
The Warner Home Video DVD release of The Sheltering Sky dates from 2002, suggesting a commercial faith in its better chances twelve years later. Why might they be right and why should we pay attention again to this movie? First, we ought to reconsider the film in light of his overall work and signature cinematic techniques. The Sheltering Sky begins to seem more like Bertolucci, for example, when we focus on the theme of looking backward—either to mid-century (WW II and the post-war period) or to May 1968 (the student strikes in Paris)—to really comment on the present. His subsequent films have also increasingly engaged questions about the role of art in society.
Second, the current climate is more receptive to other issues The Sheltering Sky raises. Some of those have been incubating since the novel’s publication—in 1990, Bertolucci told Fabien Gerard during an extensive interview that the novel was “ahead of its time”—but these issues now seem more urgent and more pervasively intelligible in a post-9/11 world.
The Sheltering Sky is the middle film of three often grouped together as Bertolucci’s “Eastern trilogy,” a shift from previous work, a working-out of a cluster of particular interests, and a point in the evolution leading to his later films. First was The Last Emperor (1987)—massive in both scale and popularity—about how China’s last hereditary ruler, Pu Yi, transitioned through the Communist Revolution. That film includes thoughtful attention to the presence and implications of his English tutor. The third film was Little Buddha (1993), with complementary stories about a reincarnated Tibetan holy man born to a modern-day Seattle couple and the mythical figure Siddhartha as a youth in the initially unlikely person of actor Keanu Reeves. Despite their far-flung settings and diverse story-lines, these films all present the volatile personal consequences ensuing from the East-West encounter.
The Last Emperor
The Last Emperor won nine Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. This might have earned Bertolucci’s next film at least the benefit of the doubt. Instead, many reviewers were vitriolic. In her own 2002 look at post-modern Italian cinema, Millicent Marcus suggests a way to start understanding this hostility. Discussing The Last Emperor, she refers to Palestinian Edward Said’s book on the East-West encounter, Orientalism (1978), insisting that the first film of the Eastern trilogy was much more about Italy than China. Said argues that the “Orient” is a fixture of the West’s imagination because it performs a “mirroring function” against which the West defines itself. Well, we are immediately in Bertolucci-land with this thought. Marcus’s use of Said’s discussion of mirroring, reflecting surfaces, projection on screens, and views through the veils provides a pretty good starter list of Bertolucci’s favorite cinematic techniques for visually representing the scrambling, disintegration ,and cultural confusion of identity in The Sheltering Sky and elsewhere—from at least as early as The Conformist.
Let’s look at what happens in the film. At 137 minutes, The Sheltering Sky is long. Set in 1947 in post-World War II North Africa, its story loops from Tangier, Morocco, and south through the Sahara to Niger and eventually back again (although Bowles says in his introduction to the 1998 paperback edition that he set the novel in Algeria). Bertolucci’s film opens with something else that’s new besides a setting: a stunning title montage of post-war New York City—the world the film’s characters have left for Africa—backed by Nelson Riddle-style orchestration with xylophone accents, of a ticker-tape parade, 5th Avenue, Radio City Music Hall, and other landmarks, the Automat, and jitterbug dancing, Central Park in winter and finally, boarding an ocean liner.
This archival footage of New York City in the title montage is followed by the scene on the dock in Tangier, where a specific ocean liner arrives with Port and Kit Moresby and their friend George Tunner (John Malkovich, Debra Winger, and Campbell Scott, respectively). It’s easy to let their ship and the one leaving Manhattan in the title montage slide together in our mind as one. This creates a visual inversion of the familiar for us. The landscape that we know to be “our” New York is oddly distant, exotic, like something brought back from far away as part of a documentary film perhaps. But that Tangier dock, with its giant rusty cargo crane, warm rich colors, and the cast in their crisp outfits, seems immediate and real. And the contrast makes it easy to understand the expression that one’s old life “seems like a dream.”
One of the first things Port Moresby talks about is his dreams, though the café in which he does this has both radio and a newsboy hawking papers to keep travelers connected to the outside world. Port’s dreams proliferate as time goes on, some of them feverish and hallucinatory, some possibly “real.” In that first café scene, Kit Moresby’s legs splay, unladylike, while she gets her shoes shined like a gent and remarks that the Italians have “oddly” given women the vote. She’d already opened a case on the dock with Djuna Barnes’ 1937 novel Nightwood sitting on top, signaling that elastic sexual identities will have some place in this story. In the café, we also meet the distasteful British duo, mother and son, the Lyles, and Paul Bowles himself, delivering the first of three narrator’s epigrammatic voice-overs.
Self-indulgent and excessive, the Lyles regularly spew the kind of racist, contemptuous remarks about Africans and about French Jews that make it difficult to accept this as an apolitical film. Mrs. Lyles is a travel writer, stealing a living from those she disparages; her son cadges money from Port, then steals his passport. Passing a group of indigenous prisoners in chains marching along a remote road later, Port remarks that “someday they’ll throw the French out.”
Both novelist and filmmaker portray the financially independent Moresbys as genuinely loving one another, but their marriage is in trouble. Kit goes along with Port’s quest for a geographic cure, though she pleads with him to stop by the time they are looking over a valley with circling, white-caped horsemen, from what they discover is a cemetery. Port has been to North Africa before, speaks Arabic fluently, has both familiar destinations he wants to show Kit and others he wants to explore. Atop the cliff outside Boussif, they try to make love, fail to hold the moment once Port pauses to philosophize, and then weep in each other’s arms for the loss—moving, memorable dramatic performances from Malkovich and Winger.
The Sheltering Sky
Although Port visits prostitutes and exotic dancers himself in the film, he is jealous of his wife and gets rid of the seduction-minded Tunner—the Lyles take him off the Moresbys’ hands—but he sickens with typhoid fever in El Ga’a. Port dies in a shabby, remote French garrison, imagining that Kit is leaving him as he leaves her stranded. Dazed and wearing his jacket, Kit hitches a ride with a Tuareg nomad, Belquassim (Eric An-Vu), on a passing camel caravan and accepts his sexual advances. For a time Kit, disguised as a boy, resides in a locked rooftop room after they reach his home city, until Belquassim’s wives turn her loose and she unveils herself to them as a woman by unwrapping her turbaned head.
The New York Times’ Vincent Canby, writing on the film’s opening day in 1990, called this part of the film an “existential update on Rudolph Valentino’s old chestnut, The Sheik,” the 1921 silent film that depicted a white Western woman’s swooning seduction by the obviously Italian heart-throb, dressed up as an Arab to add some thrill. Part of the difficulty in the East-West encounter has been the limited, stereotyped categories available within which to imagine intimacy. Kit and Belquassim’s encounter, as written by Bowles, involved rape and sharing Kit with another nomad. Bertolucci told critic Fabien Gerard that he committed his “betrayal” of Bowles’ novel--softening and reconfiguring Kit’s sexual experience with the nomads—after he talked with them on location about their culture and heard a convincing account at odds with Bowles’.
Eventually transported by British Embassy staff back to Tangiers’s Grand Hotel, Kit instead sets off for the old café, missing by moments a more seasoned, now-moustached Tunner, who’s actually waited months for her. Paul Bowles greets her. Is she lost, he asks; she says yes.
Many opening reviews of The Sheltering Sky were mixed and contradictory. Sometimes this belied a fondness for Bowles’ novel that created a hurdle for any film adaptation. Roger Ebert wrote, for example, that he grasped Bertolucci’s adaptation well enough, but the book was “so complete, so deep and so self-contained that it shuts the movie out.” It’s worth taking a look at the range and fervor of those first reviews. Canby liked the film a lot, calling it “possibly Mr. Bertolucci’s most seductive, most hypnotic movie. . .a long, beautifully modulated cry of despair,” and he thought Malkovich and Winger as the leads were “extraordinarily fine.” Stephen Farber judged Bertolucci’s film “one of the most uncompromising movies ever released by a major studio, a despairing masterwork.” The Washington Post printed two reviews the same day. Desson Howe found the film “rhapsodic” and the plot better as it went along, whereas Hal Hinson groused that the movie was “monotonously obscure, a Marxist version of Dances With Wolves.” James Sanford predicted The Sheltering Sky would “provide blessed relief for any insomniacs who venture near it.”
Do some of these comments tell us more about antipathy toward Africa and the East in general than about Bertolucci’s film? The director told Gerard that some common elements in the novel and the late ‘80’s might make that era more understanding of Port and Kit’s “isolated melancholy,” which he thought had reached “epidemic proportions” in Western culture. He noticed renewed searches for “alternatives to consumerism,” which illuminates the giant, rusty, unused cargo crane that sits on the dock when Port, Kit, and Tunner first arrive in Tangier. Bertolucci also felt that late 1980’s environmental focus on greenhouse effects and the encroaching desert supplied the Sahara with greater power as metaphor.
How about our own era now and its openness to Bertolucci’s long-held concerns? Bertolucci has often looked back in his films on two eras in particular: Italy during World War II (and the post-war period) and the May 1968 Paris student strikes (the time of his own political coming of age). In 1970, The Conformist investigated how one man could turn himself over to the Fascists and suggested parallel contemporary dangers. Millicent Marcus insists that Bertolucci’s choice to focus on how collaboration with the Fascists occurred (versus focusing on heroic resistance) marks that film as a warning. Bertolucci has returned to that theme a number of times.
Moreover, we now seem more open to reconsidering that era and its moral dilemmas too. One of the most popular dramas in New York City last season was Light in the Piazza, a musical about an American mother and her daughter visiting Italy in the 1950’s, resurrected from a novel and film adaptation (both 1962). This seems an odd project for post 9/11 theater unless we consider that US audiences are now willing to explore the last great global turning point of similar significance. I have argued elsewhere that Woody Allen’s Match Point is likewise really about the 1950’s—a virtual remake of A Place in the Sun (1951)—and that he achieves the stuffiness of that era (for U.S. audiences) by placing his story within a certain British class, despite the story’s apparent contemporaneity. We seem to be able to look back seriously in about half-century chunks. Ahead of his time in being open to The Sheltering Sky, Canby noted that it occurs in 1947, that anxious sliver of time before the 1950’s “when the civilized world is still trying to discover the reassuring boundaries of commonplace routine.”
A Western post-9/11 world similarly feels it way along now, too. This exploration involves an insight like Port Moresby had when he remarked that the Moroccans would throw the French out one day. Yet reviewers like Bilge Ebiri considered that The Sheltering Sky’s “sheer lack of politics seems to be its most remarkable trait.” I find Port’s comments and the racism of the Lyles both clearly political. The film is political in the very implications of its aesthetics. Said’s discussion of Orientalism still offers a way to wed East and West cinematically in Bertolucci’s work. The Italian director’s cinematic vocabulary is based in Western thought. Ever since The Conformist, Plato’s myth of the cave, with its shadowy illusions, has been Bertolucci’s basic visual metaphor. But the techniques he has used for expressing that are also wonderfully consistent with Said’s description of how the East has served the West aesthetically as a mirror. The Sheltering Sky offers a common visual language of mirrors, shadows, and reflections, Venetian blind effects, shots through glass or veils, and images of both entrapment and separation via shots through bars, cages, and wire mesh. Additionally, Bertolucci told Gerard that the Tuareg nomads considered the desert a mirror of their own eternal movements.
Roger Ebert also liked The Sheltering Sky early on. He objected to its marketing as an erotic thriller, saying it wasn’t really about sex at all—it was, he felt, “about American intellectuals confronted by an immensity of experience they cannot read or understand.” Part of what Ebert meant about American intellectuals circa 1990 occurs in the film with a major recurring image, the floating head. We initially see our trio head-first from behind the edge of the stone pier and we often see close-up shots of Port’s head upside down, suggesting his inability to position and integrate himself successfully in the world. Bertolucci mirrors his characters’ heads with a movie poster depicting a head outside the Cine Alcazar, across the street from the café in Tangier. Both early in the film and later, when Kit returns to Tangier and the café, tracking shots take us by this poster on the way into the café.
The Sheltering Sky is, after all, about two artists at creative impasses (Port is a composer and Kit a playwright). Bertolucci’s next three films portray artists who withdraw from the world; Stealing Beauty (1996), Besieged (1998) and The Dreamers (2003) all address the danger of illusion. This was, finally, the lesson of Plato’s cave, his reason for distrusting artists, and part of Bertolucci’s point about how the Fascists could fool The Conformist’s Marcello and others of his generation. This culminates in The Dreamers, about three young film buffs who rattle around in an ancient Paris apartment while the May 1968 strikes occur outside. Bertolucci’s films have long urged us to use cinema for something other than escapism or “an outing.”
Ebert also compared Bertolucci’s film to Australian Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), in which the white women simply disappear into the landscape. The Weir film is extremely unsettling because, against plot conventions of that time anyway, there is never any resolution of the school girls’ disappearance into the austere rock formation they visit. This brush with the unresolved unknowable evokes dread. For Americans, 9/11 has made this dread explicit and apocalyptic, and provides motivation to untangle our own illusions and our own “Orientalism.” So, The Sheltering Sky may now be interesting and absorbing in a new way for U.S. audiences, who may be willing to stand some degree of discomfort without so much “boredom”—or its underlying defensiveness.