Note: Crucial plot elements discussed! This is more of a review of the technical filmmaking aspects.
One of the more interesting film themes, in my opinion, is the theme of journey. This can mean a journey across the street, across the city, or even across the world. However, the more intimate journey is that of a personal one. A character feels lost in her world and she attempts to find what eludes her. In The Sheltering Sky, a married couple embarks on a physical journey together as “travelers” in North Africa, but what they really seek are answers to the questions of life, love, and their place as a couple. Kit and Port Moresby quickly delve into sexual escapades once they set foot off their boat. The film seems to go into the direction of a “simple” love triangle, with Tunner, their American friend, secretly springing in the sack with Kit; however, the couple’s world quickly contorts into a bizarre realm of reality. Port mysteriously and abruptly passes, which pushes Kit’s world into a land of chaos. Bertolucci enhances the film by his use of shot composition. Port’s path to destruction is brilliantly foreshadowed in the beginning of the film by an “upside down” close-up of his weary face with a sudden blink of his eyes. But his eyes don’t blink the next time we see Port in this position because the life has since drained from them. The intricate story is masterfully brought to light with the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro.
The lighting and color chosen for various scenes enhanced and symbolized the character’s feelings and externalized his or her universe. In particular, lighting played a huge subconscious role in the scene early on between Kit and Port in their hotel room. Port finished unpacking in his bedroom, and then slid into the main area, housing the playful Port. Their dialogue and body language easily showed their mood and rather friskiness toward each other. Warm orange light bathed the room and enhanced the sexual tension already filling the confined space. Kit opened her robe accepting Port’s advances with a simple “Can you rub my tummy?” Then something changed. Port’s comments about Tunner, the third wheel and potential disruption to their marriage, immediately doused the kindling flame of romance. Just as swiftly, the lighting in the room changed to a more washed-out grayish blue. This brilliantly externalized the characters’ inner feelings and shows why Storaro deserved an Academy Award nomination.
Lighting continued to play a crucial role in immersing the audience into the character’s universe. During Port’s midnight escapade through the bowels of the North African city, hard shadows eerily cast on his weary face. Then, when he arrived inside the mysterious tent occupied by the seductive native, the lighting again enhanced the scene’s mood. Back were the warm and balmy oranges and yellows that screamed sex without using any words. Before this scene, the use of juxtaposing images further stimulated the audience’s intellect. As Port sat on a step pondering his insomnia, the native “pimp” asked him “What’s wrong?” Port simply replied, “Nothing,” however we the audience received a few frames of two dogs copulating. The subtext here showed us what Port was actually thinking even though his spoken words didn’t coincide.
As Port and Kit delved deeper into exploring the back alleys of their relationship, Tunner interjected himself and further warped the couple’s already twisted pretzel. After sleeping with Kit, Tunner changed his personality from bearing the weight of his secretive transgressions. Tunner asked Kit, “Does he know?” and Kit’s interesting response was “He knows but he doesn’t know that he knows.” These words acted as the turning point for Kit and the lighting of the next scene further showed it. At lunch, Tunner acted rather hastily and his usually chipper comments were replaced with pessimistic remarks of bleakness. It is not surprising that the lighting and color choice for this scene were a dreary and omni-directional cast of gray and blue.
Another excellent example of using light to symbolize the character’s state of being was on Port’s deathbed. During the scenes of his downfall lying on the concrete floor, washed out and filtered light covered his dying body. But when he suddenly received a quick burst of life, warm and brightening sunlight cast on part of bewildered face. This hint of optimism quickly faded as sunlight failed to reach his departing body again.
In conclusion, The Sheltering Sky provided a window into the world of a couple searching for the answer to the meaning of their relationship. Their world was further enhanced by Storaro’s brilliant cinematography. I would recommend this film because of its beautiful use of visual aids, shot composition, and lighting to communicate the character’s inner emotion. The voice over at the end of the film leaves a lasting impression and shines light on the human spirit.