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shelterFor about an hour and a half of its roughly two hours, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky, based on Paul Bowles’s novel, is an original, compelling, often disturbing dramatization of a young American couple’s problems with marriage and sex, although given what we see of the interaction between Porter (John Malkovich) and Kit Moresby (Debra Winger), their bedroom difficulties may be more symptomatic than causal. Set in the period immediately after World War II, the film follows the Moresbys and their friend Tunner (Campbell Scott) as they journey deeper into North Africa, further and further away from the comforts and securities of their normal lives into an ever more foreboding and unfamiliar Sahara Desert.

A good example of the “Orientalist” equation of exoticism with sex noted by Edward Said, what keeps Sky from becoming expensive pornography is its fresh observation of the dynamics between Kit and Porter. Winger and Malkovich are thoroughly believable in their roles, smart, awkward, loving, selfish and confused. Screenwriter Mark Peploe manages to capture the way educated Americans talk, giving the actors an opportunity to combine recognizable behavior with the cadences and uncertainties of everyday conversation. This is not a facile Naturalism, with every other sentence punctuated by an angry expletive, nor is it mechanical exposition to keep the plot engine running. It is, rather, a distillation of moments riven with the jagged evasions of intelligent people uncertain of their feelings.

As long as the film remains focused on the Moresbys and Tunner, it has an edgy, unique and tangible sexiness, the kind of lingering eroticism to result from intimacy and familiarity. (With the glaring exception of two minor characters, the Lyells, a mother and son pair of British travelers aptly described as “monsters,” who appear and reappear in the story like bad pennies.) We feel we know these people, and Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro nimbly avoid posing them for exotic, touristy snapshots. When, for example, Porter insists Kit accompany him to a hilltop, his enthusiasm for the beauty of the spot is not borne out by the imagery, which is more matter-of-fact than magnificent (see above).

Those smarts disappear in the final half hour, when even the visual style collapses. One advertisement for Club Sahara after another unfolds with dumbfounding banality as Kit journeys with a Tuareg caravan across the desert before a brief interlude as a sex slave. The Christmas card-like images are more superficially “beautiful,” but they sit limply on the screen. Trite as they are, they’re nonetheless preferable to the bondage bits, which are just downright bathetic, as if the director has forgotten everything he ever knew about filmmaking.

It wouldn’t be the first time. Bertolucci has a tendency to produce grossly uneven work. The best sequences in The Sheltering Sky more than testify to his gifts. Unfortunately, the worst also demonstrate an inability to recognize the difference between good and bad ideas.