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December 13, 2007

The Kite Runner

Adaptation nails blandness of Hosseini's prose, but not the book's redeeming cultural engagement

Based on the best-selling novel by Afghan author Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner is a traditionally limned atonement narrative with issue epic cachet so well-intended it would seem to be a natural fit for the end of the Year of the “Over There” Awareness Movie. Set in Kabul, Peshawar and San Francisco from the mid-'70s until post-9/11 2001 (the film backs it up to 2000, avoiding that fault line entirely), Hosseini's book, written in flat, functional prose, is almost folkloric in its heightened and eminently graspable ethical and narrative signposts. Its surprises are all owed to its flaming arrows into the heart of Afghan culture; the detail, both loving and unflinching, belies its author as a native son. The screen adaptation, written by David Benioff, is dolefully faithful in the broad strokes; Marc Forster's direction nails the lulling blandness of Hosseini’s prose, yet almost none of the book's redeeming cultural engagement sneaks through.

Opening in 2000, 30-ish Amir (Khalid Abdalla) should be celebrating the publication of his new novel with his wife Soraya (Atossa), but a phone call from an old, ailing family friend, urging him to return to Afghanistan, points him on a different course. This sets the film up for its flashback to Kabul, 1978, just before the Soviet invasion; Amir as a 13-year-old is played by Zekiria Ebrahimi, a proud, wounded-looking boy whose best friend is also his servant, Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada), a Hazara boy, and therefore looked on as lesser by even the most open-minded Afghans. Though his mother died in childbirth (indeed, there are almost no women in the film, another potential wrinkle averted), Amir and his father Omar (Sayed Gharibzada) are not close; Omar is disappointed in his son’s seemingly fey ways, often displaying more pride in the lion-hearted, stubbornly loyal Hassan, who protects Amir at all costs.

Shot in mountainous, snow-tipped China, the Kabul sequences have a steady if predictably calibrated energy, largely owing to the performances of the two young actors; the dynamic between them is a critical element of Hosseini's book, and a key to understanding Afghanistan's wealth of religious, class and cultural intricacies. A local bully named Assef (Elham Ehsas) is outraged that Amir should buddy up with Hassan, and when the pair win the city’s annual kite-fighting contest (a nicely invigorated sequence, pepped up with some CGI-action), Assef corners Hassan (the "kite-runner" of the title, he chases down kites cut from the sky by other kites during flying competitions) and humiliates him the best way he knows how: with a sexual assault.

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The Afghan characters are played by Afghans and speak in the Dari dialect of Persian; the boys, notably cast from the streets of Kabul, are raw and fascinating to watch, though even their scenes tend to feel stifled by the brand of generic timidity that can plague self-important prestige pictures. Those boys were recently flown out of Afghanistan to the United Arab Emirates, following threats made by the Taliban for their participation in the film's controversial scene. I feel weird saying that the scene in question was almost too tame to be effective, but it fails in its function as the critical dramatic juncture for almost all of the film's characters; without impact there can be no reverberation.

Amir witnesses the rape but does and says nothing. In fact he focuses his confusion and rage on pale little shuffle-footed Hassan, eventually driving him and his father from his home, just in time for the Soviets to come rolling in. Amir and his father escape to a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan (I looked for them during Tom Hanks's visit to that same camp in a scene from Charlie Wilson's War, but no dice), then to America. California, to be exact, where by 1988 the formerly esteemed and loaded Omar is a gas station clerk, and Amir is struggling to be a writer.

Following the relatively engrossing aesthetic and dramatic offerings of the Kabul section, the American stretch is porridge-thick with family dealings. Slogging to the point where Amir (supposedly still tormented by his betrayal of Hassan, Abdalla merely hands in a cloudy-browed, one-note evocation of what could as easily be a Starbucks order gone awry) is harkened back to his home to save Hassan's son Sohrab (Ali Danish Bakhty Ari), The Kite Runner can't muster the momentum it needs for a convincingly (as opposed to wincingly) dramatic confrontation with the Taliban. I imagine this film will be a hit with the Oprah set (how is it that the book has not yet made her club list?), who will congratulate themselves on an evening spent steeped in the unsavory -- and yet strangely relatable -- mysteries of the Afghan people. What they will actually be soaking in is another matter.



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