Port (John Malkovich) and Kit Moresby (Debra Winger) and George Tunner (Campbell Scott) arrive in Tangier in 1947 after leaving behind the urban delights of post-World War II New York. Port is a composer; his wife, a writer; and their friend, a Long Island socialite. They have come to the North African desert for different reasons. "We're not tourists, we're travelers," Port and Kit explain to their friend. "Tourists are people who think about going home the minute they come, whereas travelers may not come back at all." Tunner is definitely a tourist, easily irritated by foreign customs and the lack of modern conveniences. The Moresbys, who have been married for 10 years, are travelers on a journey that they hope will take them as far from safety and familiarity as they can get.
Port is a restless soul who finds that the Sahara speaks to his yearning for something vast and mysterious. Both he and Kit are simultaneously looking for and avoiding intimacy. He finds both with an Arab prostitute in a tent. She gets drunk on champagne during a train ride and spends an evening with Tunner. Later husband and wife find an isolated spot on a cliff overlooking a desert valley, but they become distant with each other even in the midst of making love. Sensing the gulf growing between them, the Moresbys elude their traveling companion and continue on their journey in the North African desert. Several encounters with an obnoxious travel writer (Jill Bennett) and her repulsive alcoholic son (Timothy Spall) convince Port and Kit to keep moving further from civilization.
Port finds his magic place at a Foreign Legion fort. Kit picks up the scent of her husband's journey when she joins a Bedouin caravan traveling across the Sahara. Her magic moment comes when the Bedouin leader (Eric Vu-an) tutors her in the pleasures of the flesh and the rigors of solitude.
Mark Peploe and Bernardo Bertolucci's exquisite adaptation of Paul Bowles's 1947 novel gracefully conveys its themes of cross-cultural exploration, sex, solitude, and spiritual journey. The startling cinematography of Vittorio Storaro makes the shifting sands and the amazing vistas of the Sahara into a major character in the film. As he did in The Last Emperor, director Bernardo Bertolucci transports us to a visually alluring and exotic alien world where we are brought face-to-face with the compulsions and yearnings which lie behind our alternating love and fear of life. The Sheltering Sky may not appeal to everyone but to those who enjoy quest literature, this outstanding film offers a most unusual trips.