Movie Review: Les Cerfs-volants de Kaboul
By Michael Phillips, Tribune Movie Critic
The film version of Khaled Hosseini's best-selling novel "The Kite Runner" is bound to affect many people very deeply just as the book has, in many languages. Since seeing it first at the Chicago International Film Festival, and again more recently, I have struggled with my reasons for resisting the screen version. They have to do, finally, with what happens to a story charged with dramatic (and melodramatic) incidents, informed by recent history, when it becomes reduced to its plot points. And, more elusively, what happens when collaborators with the best of intentions deliver the basics without enough real feeling for the lives they're depicting.
The story involves two related instances of child sexual abuse, the ritualized viciousness of the Taliban in Afghanistan and, as an escape from both, the poetic metaphor found in Hosseini's title. Amir is the privileged son of a well-to-do Pashtun intellectual who has no time for what the bearded mullahs ("self-righteous monkeys," he calls them) are teaching his son at school. Amir's best friend is the devoted Hassan, a Hazara boy, subjected to the racist taunts of Pashtun bullies all over Kabul.
On the day of the kite-fighting championship, won by whomever "cuts" his opponents' strings on the way to victory, Hassan is attacked and raped by Assef, an emblem of fascistic horror. Amir knows of the assault but does nothing to intervene, and doesn't acknowledge it afterward. Then he tries to bend his life around the aftermath and, rather like Ian McEwan's "Atonement," "The Kite Runner" becomes the story of a guilt-ridden young person's attempts to reconcile an injurious past with a difficult future.
The second part of the story, breathlessly compacted into blunt, bold-stroke highlights by screenwriter David Benioff, finds Amir and his father living in Fremont, Calif., in the late 1980s. The cultural dislocation such people feel, having escaped their homeland with little more than their lives, isn't given much screen time here. Director Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball," "Finding Neverland," "Stranger Than Fiction") builds this section, as well as the prologue and epilogue, upon a disappointingly slack performance as the grown-up Amir from Khalid Abdalla, who played one of the hijackers in "United 93."
There is, however, a lovely performance from Iranian actor Homayoun Ershadi. As Amir's proud father, he alone among the adult actors in this international ensemble digs beneath the surface of the plot to suggest a real, complicated human being undergoing a world of change. The way the actor uses his bearing and his voice to capture the imperious intellectual we see in the early part of "The Kite Runner" contrasts remarkably with the man we see (same actor) a few chronological years later working in a gas station in Fremont, living through, and for, his son's education and happiness.
By the time we get to the third and final section, the film has become all narrative contrivance and wish fulfillment. A key character makes an absurdly convenient reappearance, simply to satisfy another character's need for revenge, which overlaps with the readers' and film audience's need. (Some storytelling traditions are universal.) Throughout "The Kite Runner," which was shot mainly in China (substituting for Afghanistan and Pakistan) and the U.S., you sense Forster straining to tell a sprawling story as clearly and tactfully and quickly as possible, while still pulling our heartstrings when it comes to what the youngest characters suffer.
I really don't know why Forster shot the kite-flying sequences the way he did. They're incredibly souped up with digital effects, so that the audience is up there, swooping away with the battling airborne wonders. It's all too fancy for words, and it takes you straight out of the story. In a film that lurches from one grievous indignity to another, these scenes provide misjudged relief.
I know many will disagree with every single one of my issues, and will be pulled into "The Kite Runner" without reservation. Its U.S. release was delayed six weeks, for serious reasons. The young Afghani actors involved in the rape scene - non-explicit, but not easy to endure - were flown out of the country to the United Arab Emirates for fear of reprisal for their involvement in the scene, and the film. There, according to authorities, they'll stay while the studio and the actors' families gauge the potentially inflammatory reaction to "The Kite Runner." A resurgent Taliban will not like what they see, if they see it.
This, finally, is why "The Kite Runner" is such a heartbreaking near-miss. It so clearly comes from the heart of its author, and from the heart of a country. It would gladden my heart to report that the years it took to get Hosseini's story to the screen resulted in a film able to transcend its controversy.
"The Kite Runner"
Directed by Marc Forster; screenplay by David Benioff, based on the book by Khaled Hosseini; photographed by Roberto Schaefer; edited by Matt Chesse; music by Alberto Iglesias; production design by Carlos Conti; produced by William Horberg, Walter Parkes, Rebecca Yeldham and E. Bennett Walsh. In English and Dari, with English subtitles. A Paramount Classics release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:02. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for strong thematic material including the rape of a child, violence and brief strong language).
Amir - Khalid Abdalla
Baba - Homayoun Ershadi
Young Amir - Zekiria Ebrahimi
Young Hassan - Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada