In his 1949 novel "The Sheltering Sky," Paul Bowles devotes about as much energy to not saying what he means to say as he does to saying it. In telling his story, the author engages in a kind of literary dance of the seven veils; he just can't seem to come across with it.

Neither can the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci in his frustrating, monotonously obscure movie version. In print, we're puzzled but fascinated by Bowles's inscrutability, by his subterranean style of inference and suggestion; it's seductive, this harem dance. Unfortunately, the movie is just as difficult to get at but not nearly as alluring.

It can't be said that the director was overawed by his source material or that -- even with the 79-year-old author functioning onscreen as a kind of narrator and presiding spirit -- he has failed to make it his own. Though the character relationships and the structure of the narrative remain unchanged, the meaning of the story has been altered -- simplified yet made even less accessible, more stubbornly cloaked.

At its essence, the film has something to do with loss of identity and sexual transformation, though what, specifically, is never fully clear. Its protagonists are a pair of aimless Western travelers -- played by John Malkovich and Debra Winger and based on the author and his wife, Jane -- who trek across Algeria, trying to reach out to each other and searching for some existential essence.

Port (Malkovich) and his wife, Kit (Winger), are travelers as opposed to tourists, the difference being, to Kit's way of thinking, that tourists always plan an end to their journeys. Home is always the tourist's true destination; for Port, though, home is what he hopes to obliterate. As Malkovich plays him, Port is sour and self-absorbed; he's manipulative and paralyzed with malaise. Kit is Port's companion in his travels -- along with their sleekly handsome friend Tunner (Campbell Scott) -- and though Port seems to need her and on some level love her, a wall remains between them.

Most of the first half of the movie is taken up with the trio's pointless travels and some shifty maneuvers in which Port seems to be trying to test Kit's loyalty by throwing her to Tunner. The tension in these scenes is missing, though, primarily because Winger has so much difficulty communicating her character. Though she looks smashing in her smart '40s traveling clothes, Winger seems stiff and inhibited. There's nothing for the character to do, and as a result her emotions are bottled up. Malkovich is at least given several scenes to play that express Port's restlessness, but Kit exists in a state of perpetual irresolution; she's suspended, unborn, until Port comes to some resolution about himself.

When he does, after a bout of typhoid, Kit is both lost and reborn. The second half of the film deals with Kit's journey into unconsciousness and oblivion. In a kind of trance, she wanders into the Sahara, where she takes up with a young Tuareg tribesman, becomes his lover and, disguised as a boy, is locked in a chamber as a part of his harem.

In the book, Kit is sexually debased and, embracing the degradation, loses herself in an erotic daydream. What seems to be happening is that Kit is carrying on for Port and living out homosexual fantasies that he was unable to fulfill for himself. But Bertolucci -- who co-wrote the script with Mark Peploe -- doesn't seem to be much interested in this angle. He portrays Kit's encounter with her Tuareg lover not as a sexual surrender and descent but as a romantic interlude. Through sex, Kit purges herself of her Western notions of independence and individuality and enters into a more primitive, communal consciousness. It's a political awakening movie -- Bertolucci's "Coming Home."

Whereas Bowles wrote in his veiled way about his own sexual longings, Bertolucci has made a movie about his own cultural disenchantment, his own longing to leave the ways of the West behind. Bertolucci's "The Sheltering Sky" is about voyages and transformation. And yes, it's based on the Bowles novel, but what it most resembles is an existential Marxist's version of Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves." Both movies are "Heart of Darkness" stories about redemption through exposure to an unfamiliar culture -- they're both about going native.

Both visions are wish-fulfillments, but Costner's film at least has conviction to support its idealizations. Bertolucci's work feels like a masturbatory intellectual exercise. The scenes are listless and dramatically inert. The flair for passionate staging and expressive camerawork seems to have left him. His psychological dynamism too. Sure, Vittorio Storaro's images are ravishing, but they're also empty, blandly handsome, like the work of an inspired travelogue artist. Bertolucci's approach here has a shallow, dilettantish air. He doesn't penetrate Bowles's themes, he hollows them out. He gives them a tourist's treatment.

The Sheltering Sky, at area theaters, is rated R and contains suggestive situations and some nudity.