THERE'S A silent, prolonged crashing going on in "The Sheltering Sky." It's a feature-length collision between Paul Bowles's existentially bleak novel of 1949 and director Bernardo Bertolucci's rhapsodic interpretation.

The Italian director, employing the same team that produced his "The Last Emperor," has created an impressively picturesque drama, set in North African. But through his eyes, "Sky" is a simply stated, tragic love affair between American travelers Port (John Malkovich) and Kit Moresby (Debra Winger).

In the book, the Port-Kit relationship is just one of many elements in a foreboding, surreal continued on next page from previous page drama, full of insights about life, love, friendship, travel, other cultures and, of course, the Sahara. Admittedly, this is a cluster of tough things to convey in a movie, but even though Bertolucci follows Bowles's storyline faithfully, he has eliminated most of its implications.

To viewers unacquainted with the novel, the movie will probably come across as a slightly stiff drama between eccentric, vaguely estranged wayfarers Malkovich and Winger, which becomes increasingly better (and grimmer) as they travel deeper into the hostile desert. The obstacles that confront both of them, and travel companion Scott Campbell, will merely seem gratuitous. The point of the movie, now reduced to a bare, unrequited love story, with sand and flies, will seem elusive at best.

There are moments, however, when Bertolucci sets a mood beautifully. With renowned cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and unorthodox composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, he creates some stirring, appropriately menacing sequences, full of tents, gesturing, veiled eyes, dusty pathways and sensational skies.

For their parts, Winger and Malkovich follow a spiraling descent very credibly; Winger is particularly effective as a woman slightly on the edge of consciousness, sanity and certainly happiness.

In a move open to interpretation, Bertolucci puts Bowles himself in the movie as a semi-surreal, Chorus-like narrator. Is it a desperate attempt by Bertolucci to gain artistic blessing? A calculating move to heighten credibility? A vanity concession to Bowles? Whatever the answer, it's lovely to have him on screen, in much the same way addict-writer William Burroughs gave authentic zest to Gus van Sant's "Drugstore Cowboy." Bowles's gentle, avian features, the obvious wisdom of his years and his distinctive presence are practically worth the price of admission.

THE SHELTERING SKY (R) -- Dupont Circle and K-B Paris.