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MOVIE REVIEWS : Big Stars, Big Stakes : Directors Bernardo Bertolucci, left, and Sydney Pollack swept the Oscars with their last films--'The Last Emperor’ and ‘Out of Africa.’ Today, they go head to head with their latest movies. : Bertolucci’s Desert of the Soul

TIMES FILM CRITIC

The New Yorkers of “The Sheltering Sky” (AMC Century 14), Port and Kit Moresby, are expatriates of the late 1940s, aware that they are living through the dying fall of their marriage as they travel the world with no urgency about their return, or about anything else for that matter. Disinterested now in America, they’ve sailed to Tangier, with crushing amounts of luggage and the hope of finding the enlightenment that has eluded them on their other exotic treks.

When Paul Bowles created the Moresbys in 1949 in his novel, which soon reached cult status, Port and Kit and their desultory rush toward oblivion in the North African desert hit a nerve with more than a few readers. Here was their latter-day Scott and Zelda: Port, a composer, Kit a playwright/diarist, worldly and “artistic,” drawn to the abyss with the inevitability of lemmings and the elegance of tango dancers.

Little wonder Bowles’ ascetic, unadorned prose, which ended in a blaze of precisely recorded sensuality, held readers. His story mirrored both existential and universal pain: a couple whose “sentimental bonds” weren’t enough to hold together a marriage in shards. Then too, there was the teasing wonder of how close the novel came to Bowles’ private life with his high-strung, talented wife, short-story writer/playwright Jane Bowles, who lived in an impenetrable thicket of fears and melancholies.

Bowles called “The Sheltering Sky” “an adventure story in which the adventures take place on two planes simultaneously: in the actual desert and in the inner desert of the spirit.” And in that inner desert, “sexual adventures fail to provide relief. The shade is insufficient, the glare is always brighter as the journey continues. And the journey must continue--there is no oasis in which one can remain.”

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Tricky stuff for film. But Bernardo Bertolucci--with his impeccable production team, especially his great mind’s eye, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro--almost has it within his grasp. As the Moresbys, John Malkovich and Debra Winger are superb at suggesting a couple quiveringly attuned to each other’s needs and neuroses after a decade of marriage, yet tragically unable to connect.

And from the film’s first moment there is a sense of place both terrifyingly vast and stifling. It’s unthinkable that one could even cast a shadow on this Sahara, much less imprint oneself on its landmark-free expanses, while the inky tunnel-like passageways of its old villages promise danger at the every turn.

“The Sheltering Sky,” however, is a story of the loss of identity, the disintegration of the personality in the impersonal otherness of the North African desert. The sexual odyssey that seals it must be absolutely soul-obliterating. Bewilderingly, Bertolucci--of all directors--and co-screenwriter Mark Peploe have sentimentalized and softened this section so that the movie crumbles into a lofty soft-core travelogue with madness for its fade-out.

The movie may work for the reader who has just put down Bowles’ novel, with all the tensions and intrigues of its subtext still freshly in mind. To others, Kit, Port and Tunner, their upper-class, not-overbright traveling companion (newcomer Campbell Scott), may seem querulous and exhausting.

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The three form a triangle of sorts, with a vile English travel-writer mother and her son (Jill Bennett and Timothy Spall) as overripe comic relief. Tunner, who has money and the indefatigable cheer of a summer-stock juvenile, is dazzled by Kit, pursuing her without any sense of what life with a high-maintainance neurotic entails.

Kit functions each day from an elaborate system of omens; a scraped knee or a spilled glass of water is a sign for something else, rarely anything good. Port is used to humoring her, holding her hand through her encyclopedic fears, rubbing her tummy on demand. But when Kit explains away their separate bedrooms to Tunner, airily saying, “The first rule of marriage is never confuse it with sex,” she’s also defining the gulf between her and her passive, sexually blocked husband.

The most telling scene between Port and Kit is their attempt to lose themselves in lovemaking, after bicycling to a high desert ridge outside the village of Boussif. With part of the desert shadowed beneath them like a spreading ink blot, they try desperately to obliterate their separateness, but it’s as sharp and distinct as the stones they’re lying on. Miserably, they pull apart, and not even their mutual assurances of love can take away the pathos or the emptiness. (This and other explicit sexual encounters and the film’s unabashed nudity are reasons for its R rating.)

Eluding Tunner, the Moresbys find catastrophe in their path: Port’s passport is stolen, they run into a black rain of flies, illness dogs them. But the fervor with which Port rushes them deeper and deeper into the Sahara makes it clear that whatever their destiny is to be, the Moresbys are racing forward to embrace it.

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When fate separates them, Kit stumbles onto the traveling caravan of the blue-turbaned Tuareg tribesman Belquassim (Eric Vu-An), but it’s the film that loses its way. In the novel, Belquassim’s unquestioned sexual authority and Kit’s submission to it were obligatory steps toward the shattering ending. Bertolucci, full of “the ecstasy of improvisation,” has declared that Bowles was fantasizing and has created a prettified, delicate sexual fantasy in its place for Winger and Bejart ballet dancer Vu-An.

This, from the maker of “Last Tango in Paris”? It’s unfathomable. Not even Bertolucci’s use of the sad-eyed, 80-year-old Bowles himself, interacting with his own characters, is as disastrous a misstep--although it comes close.

Bertolucci and Bowles are in any case an odd pairing: the elegantly spare writer whose eye is fixed on a finite point of nothingness and one of the screen’s most swooningly lush sensualists. The wonder is that as much of “The Sheltering Sky” works as well as it does.

‘THE SHELTERING SKY’

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Debra Winger Kit

John Malkovich Port

Campbell Scott Tunner

Jill Bennett Mrs. Lyle

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Timothy Spall Eric Lyle

Eric Vu-An Belquassim

A Warner Bros. presentation of a Jeremy Thomas production. Producer Thomas. Director Bernardo Bertolucci. Executive producer William Aldrich. Screenplay Mark Peploe, Bertolucci, based on the book by Paul Bowles. Camera Vittorio Storaro. Production design Gianni Silvestri. Editor Gabriella Cristiani. Art director Andrew Sanders. Costumes James Acheson. Music Ryuichi Sakamoto. Additional African music Richard Horowitz. Running time: 2 hours and 18 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (explicit sexual encounters, unabashed nudity).

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