'The Kite Runner:' Touching story of atonement

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Hauntingly elegant and searingly heart wrenching, "The Kite Runner" is difficult to watch.

Based on the best-selling book by Khaled Hosseini, the film opens with an Afghan immigrant named Amir (Khalid Abdalla plays the adult Amir) living in San Francisco and receiving copies of his first novel from his publisher. "The Kite Runner" then flashes back to Amir's childhood in 1970s Kabul, a very different place than the bombed-out city we know today. Before the Soviets invaded in 1980, it was a cosmopolitan, tolerant place, where Amir's wealthy father, Baba (the wonderful Iranian actor, Homayoun Ershadi) drives a Mustang and listens to Count Basie on his hi-fi system.

"The Kite Runner" stars Zekiria Ebrahimi as 12-year-old Amir, the top kiteflyer in 1978 Kabul, whose best friend (and servant) Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) has an impressive ability to run (track and recover) fallen kites. When a kite string is severed in a duel and the kite flies free, Hassan knows instinctively where it will come down.

This is the first film role for both child actors, and they are sensational at convincing us of the boys' inseparable bond. Their friendship is best illustrated when they fly kites in a ballet of movements, Amir pilots the kite into battle with other fliers, while Hassan is the "runner" who holds the spool and feeds out string. Each needs the other, but the class difference between the two is clear. With a sweet character, Hassan would do anything for Amir, and often fights his fights for him. Amir is the bookish type, much to his father's dismay, and writes stories, which Hassan loves to hear.

Amir wins the big all-city kite tournament, and Hassan takes off to capture his prize, the final kite downed in competition. When Amir goes looking for him, he finds his friend cornered by bullies. Too cowardly to step in and help, Amir watches helplessly from the shadows as Hassan is beaten and sexually assaulted. After that, their relationship changes. Amir despises himself for not fighting for his friend and Hassan's continued presence and loyalty is a daily rebuke. Amir distances himself from his friend, and schemes to discredit Hassan and his father, and have them sent away.

The young boys are then separated forever when the Russians invade Afghanistan.

Director Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball") orchestrates some terrific sequences the shots of the kite-filled sky are delightful and the kite-running scenes are well handled. David Benioff's impressive script also includes several engaging details, such as the two young boys going to the movies.

Their favorite is "The Magnificent Seven," from which they can recite every line of dialogue.

When the Russians invade Afghanistan, the staunchly anti-communist Baba must flee with his son. They spend much of their wealth to get smuggled into Pakistan, and eventually emigrate to California. In this brave new world the proud Baba is diminished to a gas station attendant. But Amir goes to school, and to college, marries a nice Afghani girl, and publishes his first novel. Underneath all this, Amir's shameful childhood secret still festers like the cancer that is eating away his father. And shortly after Baba dies, the telephone rings. It is an ailing Rahim Khan, calling from Pakistan, with a cryptic reprieve: "And now there is a way to be good again."

Eventually, the film catches up when Amir gets that fateful call, and then we watch him slip back into Afghanistan in an attempt to atone for his childhood betrayal. The vibrant Kabul he knew as a child is gone, replaced by a fundamentalist regime. It's a place where the halftime show at a soccer game is a woman being stoned to death.

As tense as these later scenes get, they work because Forster has so patiently laid the groundwork in telling Amir's story, so that we understand exactly why he's gone to such lengths and are rooting for him to succeed.

There is one plot twist near the end that simply strains credibility. But it doesn't quite break the movie's spell, and it doesn't dilute the film's simple but powerful message: there's no sin that can't be atoned for.

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