I always wonder what it might be like to have a film set in a location that is explicitly specific, with this film, as example, the Sahara desert and outlining areas of North Africa, and to not have some kind of Lawrence of Arabia kind of epic story attached to it. It's a challenge for a filmmaker to attempt, and Bernardo Bertolucci did attempt it in 1990 with the Sheltering Sky, based on the book that seems to be massively popular (though un-read by me). Whether he succeeded completely or not will depend on how much the viewer can take seeing characters sort of engulfed by the director and cinematographer's own adoration of the strange and bizarrely exotic locales.
The story is boiled down, probably more-so than was in the Bowles novel, about a husband and wife (Malkovich and Winger), and their friend (Scott), who go to "travel" in North Africa. For what precisely is uncertain, but it is clear that the focal point is that of their marriage failing after years together (both sides sleeping with others, distanced, not altogether honest in conversation).
But this changes, of course, once Paul gets typhoid and has a fever for the middle chunk of the film. After this, when a change of events occur, The Sheltering Sky gets even more surreal and sensual then before, if still slightly obtuse in how to really relay a good story. And it's not that Bertolucci is whacked out, like with La Luna, as a storyteller per-say. He actually progresses what there is involving the characters pretty well, and Malkovich and Winger are up to the task of playing people who are sort of bourgeois malcontents who get their respective states of mind altered through their travels of the fly-ridden villages and poor towns in the Sahara region.
But it seems like material, even for someone who hasn't read the book, to be more evocative as prose then as filmed, and the many customs and many little details of the villagers are left as more-so poetic aspirations than things relevant to the narrative. This all being said, The Sheltering Sky may possibly be Bertolucci's most astoundingly shot feature, with it coming right behind Goodfellas as the best cinematography of 1990 (via the great Vittorio Storaro). Shot after shot looks like it could come out of a truly exquisite book, and the dedication to compositions and long shots and how a close-up can be just as meaningful cinematically as a view of the desert, is the best that Bertolucci has to offer.
But then again, like with Antonioni when he's at his most scatter-shot, without characters who even subtly convey a lot, or with strong enough themes aside from the despair amid an alien environment (to the characters), it becomes the textbook case of style over substance. I'd recommend it, especially to fans of the director and DP, but I can understand the dismay that fans of the book had at the adaptation, despite the convincing performances and (as a given) the wonder of seeing places not seen before, like the not-filmed-before-this-film location of Niger.