The Sheltering Sky (Filmmakers Collection) (1990)

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Released 3-Apr-2007

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Audio Commentary-by Director Bernardo Bertolucci
Featurette-Making Of-Desert Roses: The Making of The Sheltering Sky
Featurette-Behind The Scenes-Images du Tournage
Theatrical Trailer
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1990
Running Time 132:15 (Case: 186)
RSDL / Flipper RSDL
Dual Disc Set
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Bernardo Bertolucci

Shock Entertainment
Starring Debra Winger
John Malkovich
Campbell Scott
Jill Bennett
Timothy Spall
Eric Vu-An
Amina Annabi
Philippe Morier-Genoud
Sotigui Kouyaté
Tom Novembre
Ben Smaïl
Kamel Cherif
Afifi Mohamed
Case Amaray-Opaque-Dual-Secure Clip
RPI ? Music Ryuichi Sakamoto

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    The Sheltering Sky, released in 1990, was the second film in what is loosely described as director Bernardo Bertolucci's Eastern Trilogy. The series began with the thunderously successful (both at the box-office and critically) The Last Emperor and ended in 1994 with Little Buddha. Although Bertolucci had been no stranger to dramas set in other countries (Last Tango in Paris) these films allowed him to bring his own brand of isolation to far flung locations.

The Sheltering Sky was a film which confused critics and fans alike when it was released in 1990. Some critics saw in it a rhapsodic poem of loneliness and others saw a ready-made cure for insomnia. In fact, both were probably right as it veers from moments of pure insight to annoying nothingness and back again within the space of a long 136 minutes.

The Sheltering Sky is based on a book by Paul Bowles which is regarded as one of the masterpieces of the last century. It is a deep and introspective book blending the lyrical with the obtuse. Perhaps the whole tone and style of the book were reasons why many considered it unfilmable. Even Bowles himself is said to have remarked that he hated the ending of the movie and didn't think there was much good happening up to that point!

It is just after the end of the Second World War. Married couple Kit and Port Moresby (Debra Winger and John Malkovich) arrive in Africa with their friend Tunner ( Campbell Scott). Early on the easygoing Tunner makes an offhand remark about tourists. Kit and Port are outraged:

Tunner: We're probably the first tourists they've had since the war.
Kit Moresby: Tunner, we're not tourists. We're travellers.
Tunner: Oh. What's the difference?
Port Moresby: A tourist is someone who thinks about going home the moment they arrive, Tunner.
Kit Moresby: Whereas a traveller might not come back at all.
Tunner: You mean I'm a tourist.
Kit Moresby: Yes, Tunner. And I'm half and half.

That exchange just about sums up their relationships. Port is an island unto himself - self reliant and needing companions but not companionship. Tunner is just a straight up guy out for a little adventure. For him this is a break not a lifestyle. Kit is trapped in between - she loves Port and respects his wanderlust but sometimes just wants to have a home and a settled life. Tunner is with them as a sort of buffer between their marriage to keep them apart and together at the same time.

As the couple (with and without their friend) begin to examine their marriage they go literally and metaphorically deeper into the desert in search of splendid isolation.

Along the way the pair meet up with an odious travel writer (Jill Bennett - who sadly took her own life not long after the production wrapped) and her loutish, useless son (Timothy Spall) who they in turn despise, manipulate and are manipulated by. Coming along for the ride is writer Paul Bowles who Bertolucci puts into the movie as a sort of despairing observer. It is he who delivers the melancholy final lines of the movie (not a spoiler) :

Narrator: Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well,
yet everything happens only 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 that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise?
Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.

The trouble for many viewers is that Port and Kit are fairly unlikeable characters. How are we supposed to feel the depths of their despair at the loss of their love or the tragedy that befalls them when we don't really feel for them as people? In that regard however, the film is almost at one with the book. In fact, the book is even more cold in its examination of these characters. Even Paul Bowles was moved to comment that whilst John Malkovich was Port, Debra Winger was just too warm for Kit.

Lovers of Bertolucci will notice his trademarks - long, slow scenes of incredible beauty. In combination with master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Bertolucci has created a work of infinite beauty. Not only are there devastating desert landscapes but the interiors are warmly lit with Storaro's trademark red hues. The music, by Ryuichi Sakamoto, contains an unforgettable tragic theme which is probably better suited to another movie.

All in all, The Sheltering Sky remains, 17 years since I last saw it, as puzzling and complex as it was in 1990. It is occasionally challenging especially in the almost wordless last 45 minutes. The acting never struck me as the best work from either of the leads but the whole mood of the piece has a definite attraction. Best suited to a languorous afternoon.

Don't wish to see plot synopses in the future? Change your configuration.

Transfer Quality


   The Sheltering Sky comes to DVD in a 1.78:1 transfer, close to the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It is 16x9 enhanced.

The film was originally shot on 35mm film blown up to 70mm for its cinematic release. It is not hard to see why. The film contains some of the most striking desert images since Lawrence of Arabia. The sands are endless and tiny shapes of camel trains dot the wide expanse.

The transfer is in decent shape despite the fact that it does not appear to have undergone any restoration. Whilst 1990 sounds recent it is almost 20 years ago and any fan would be pleasantly surprised about the quality of the image.

It is not faultless. There are a few compression artefacts visible in some of the sky scenes. The print is not entirely free of blemishes. There are some minor scratches and dots on the print but these really aren't a concern. I did notice moments where the audio sync went wayward. Strangely there were a few moments where this happened in interior scenes rather than out on the windy dunes.

The image is reasonably sharp and the level of film grain is appropriate to the film and the era. There are no subtitles.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


   The audio for The Sheltering Sky is Dolby Digital 2.0 running at 224Kb/s.

There is no getting around how much the atmosphere of the movie would have been improved by a more expansive track. The music of Sakamoto, together with other African music, is pleasantly produced but it would have been nice to have a lot more power and quality in the soundtrack.

The dialogue is reasonably clear but the level is mixed a bit low.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


This is a 2 DVD affair. The commentary track and short extras are on the main disc. The other extras are on a separate DVD 5. They are of varying quality.

Audio Commentary

The commentary track is listed on the case as being by Bertolucci. That is true enough but scriptwriter Mark Peploe and Producer Jeremy Thomas are also along for the ride. It is difficult to tell when the commentary was recorded. It starts and ends abruptly without any introduction. The commentary can best be described as Old School as the men are really just watching the film and throwing in a comment here and there. That can make it a hard slog at times with Bertolucci having a pretty strong accent. There are a few interesting insights although there are also a lot of long pauses. Bertolucci describes the film as a dream with open eyes, which is a fairly accurate description.

Featurette-Making Of, Desert Rose

The making of film Desert Rose is written and directed by Gabriella Cristiani , the editor on the film. She speaks some halting English throughout although much of the film is in Italian with subtitles. The film is a mixed blessing. On the one hand it is a bit of a pretentious late 80's creation with an In search of the maestro feel. On the other hand it offers some rare insights into the filmmaking process. Paul Bowles is interviewed at some length and he offers some insights into the book and its meanings. Interestingly, he complains that Bertolucci refuses to believe his protestations that the book is not autobiographical. It is with horror that he says that not only did Bertolucci believe it to be so but he told the cast!

Bowles explains the title of the book which means, if I understood him right, that the blue sky is one short layer of protection from the infinite blackness above. We also get to see Winger and Bertolucci arguing on set, Malkovich complaining on set and the producer complaining about the cost of the set!

The film is contemporary to the feature and unaltered so be prepared for the average sound and video quality.

Featurette-Behind The Scenes Image du Tournage

The Making of feature is a bit of a blink or you will miss it affair. It is largely studio fluff with studio interviews with the cast.

Theatrical Trailer

The trailer is an enjoyable affair which paints the movie as something entirely more taut and dramatic.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

   The Region 1 version of the film is similar however it does not include the commentary track. The Region 2 French version, however, has a DTS track as well as an extra feature about Paul Bowles. That would seem to be the best version for lovers of the film.


    The Sheltering Sky was something of a failure on its release, confusing critics and alienating those who found The Last Emperor so charming.

This special edition gives the film a pretty good chance at reconsideration. The transfer is a decent stab at the film though the sound is a little disappointing and the extras are of varying quality.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Trevor Darge (read my bio)
Monday, May 21, 2007
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DVR 630H-S, using Component output
DisplayPanasonic TH-50PV60A 50' Plasma. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080i.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationOnkyo TX - SR603
SpeakersOnkyo 6.1 Surround

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