Two Afghan boys from different class backgrounds find friendship in "The Kite Runner."
When you become an adult, you put away childish things, but you never quite put away childhood. It marks you. At the heart of Khaled Hosseini's much-beloved novel "The Kite Runner" is the notion that the path into maturity is bordered by increasingly tightened social pressures, the complexity of which are felt more than they are understood. The narrower the path, the more baggage one carries. This deeply reasoned insight is always revelatory, and always bears examination, whether it's in "Kite Runner" or in similar works, such as "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" and "To Kill a Mockingbird."
'The Kite Runner'
Opens Friday in theaters
Like those novels, Hosseini's book has a shared sense of Southern Gothic storytelling, of interpersonal rhythms, wonder, residual guilt trips and coincidences so vivid that they seem fated. "Kite Runner" has all that in spades, but it also has secret sauce: a lively portrait of Afghanistan before it became a cartoon nation. To most Americans, Afghanistan is as remote as the moon, and the novel's other major accomplishment is that it makes real a world that has gone away, and make us mourn it as well.
HAVE YOU ever done anything you were ashamed of? Something that, whether or not it was intentional or beyond your control, you wish could be undone. Something that you carry into adulthood, a stain on your conscience. It happens to Amir, whose childhood companion is Hassan, the "kite runner" of the title. The boys are inseparable buddies in 1970s Kabul, each filling a void in the other: Amir being introspective and cautious, Hassan being loyal to a fault, nearly doglike.
They make an ideal team in kiting wars, a springtime passion in old Afghanistan, when boys would fly highly acrobatic kites with ground glass in the strings, dueling to cut the strings of opponents. Amir's hidden aggression bursts out, to Hassan's delight. It's a testosterone thing.
Neatly revealed in glimpses and throwaway dialogue, we learn what the boys do not: That Amir is pampered and rich, that his father is a shrewd and respected politician with a secret; that Hassan and his father are the family servants, and also members of the much-repressed Hazara tribe. Upper-class Pashtu in Afghanistan spit upon Hazari. It's heartbreaking. And yes, we see the parallels to race relations elsewhere.
Things cycle up when Hassan is brutally beaten and raped by Pashtu bullies, and although Amir witnesses the event, he's frozen in place. The cycle of friendship is broken, and Amir behaves badly, betraying his old friend. This is the most heartbreaking part of the film, because we recognize that Amir is behaving, well, like a child, with no regard for escalating consequences, in the lives of others and in his own conscience. This will eat at him forever.
How can it get worse? The Russians invade and Amir and his father flee the country. For the proud father -- played by Homayoun Ershadi, in one of the great performances of the year -- it's a tragedy he bears with anger and dignity. You can see it in his body language, even as he takes menial jobs on the fringe of American society. But for Amir, it's chance to flee and reinvent himself.
In the admittedly small Afghan emigre population in the United States, the elders stick to the old customs as much as possible, even though the Afghanistan they remember has been transformed into a Taliban hellhole, while passive, malleable Amir grows to become a young novelist. He courts an Afghan girl, and once married, they become young Americans, although still respectful of the old ways, at least when their parents are around.
Despite personal mistakes and a keen eye for the mundane details of making a living in a foreign land, these are rich, proud, flawed, sympathetic characters. Human beings. For once, Muslim culture is not treated as joke in a Hollywood film.
THEN AMIR gets a surprise phone call from Afghanistan. It's a chance to redeem himself, but he has to go into harm's way to do so. Going into the shattered country proves to be a lot more dangerous than he thought. Although you can almost see Amir's sense of self-respect rebuilding, incident by incident, the character is too self-aware to shake the guilt completely, even though, as an adult, he can rationalize his childhood betrayal. Emotions aren't that logical.
The last half-hour of the film, while true to the novel's theme, has a bit more derring-do and sentimentality than expected. But while you can intellectualize a book, movies are about movement and emotion, and the film version winds up satisfyingly cathartic.
Director Marc Forster and screenwriter David Benioff have made one of the great movies of the year, likely of the decade. Like the book, it sticks with you and opens the world.
Much has been made of the rape scene that triggers the film's plot, to the point where the lives of the young actors, Zekeria Ebrahimi and Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, have been threatened by the modern Taliban, and some have suggested it could be removed from the film entirely. The scene is very brief, and while clear, it's not graphic.
The entire point of the incident, however, is that it is something the Muslim characters can never discuss or reveal, even though it colors their lives and relationships. Author Hosseini could only say even that much in an American, English-language novel, and that's a disturbing revelation on its own.