The Middle East as sensual playground


The Sheltering Sky
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
The Sheltering Sky,
the soundtrack of the motion picture
Produced by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Richard Horowitz
Virgin Records. Available on CD and cassette
Reviewed by Susan Mackie

This story of a US couple's decadent travels through French-colonised North Africa in 1947 is taken from the novel of the same name by Paul Bowles, published in 1948. Debra Winger and John Malkovich play Kit and Port Moresby, married for 10 years and in the process of destroying each other in a doomed relationship.

As they travel through remote villages in southern Morocco and Algeria, we see the magnificence of these desert towns. Deeper in the Sahara, there are visions of squalor, poverty and disease.

Generally, however, the lives of the inhabitants of these places are given little attention. For all Bertolucci's research into these cultures, the film still, at times, plays like "great white Westerner meets chaos of alien culture" or "Westerners learn lessons about themselves in exotic places". The Arabs in the film are merely scenery — until Belqassim comes along.

Once the movie focusses on Kit's intense, virtually wordless, affair with the Tuareg nomad, it becomes an erotic fantasy reminiscent of a Rudolf Valentino movie: the dunes, the moon, the camels, the potent sheikh and the white woman. Or, the Middle East as sensual playground.

In spite of the clichés and vague philosophy and near total lack of historical context, the eerie desert landscapes and the night cinematography by Vittorio Storaro are a spectacle not to be missed.

Best of all is the soundtrack. It is vivid and captivating. Traditional music is used alongside the haunting voice of Houria Aichi, Chaba Zahouania's more contemporary sound and some of Paul Bowles' own recordings of Moroccan women's voices from his travels in 1955.