THE KITE RUNNER

PG-13

-By Ethan Alter


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For a director who only came to Hollywood's attention six short years ago, Marc Forster has already enjoyed a remarkably varied career. Since 2001, he's helmed a melodrama set in the Deep South (Monster's Ball), a period biopic about an early 20th-century British playwright (Finding Neverland), a New York-based psychological thriller (Stay) and a storybook dramedy that unfolds in a semi-fictional urban landscape (Stranger Than Fiction). The thing that unites these seemingly disparate films is that they all revolve around an outsider, someone who exists in his or her society but isn't really part of it. (When you think of it that way, it makes sense that Forster was tapped to direct the next 007 adventure—after all, who is James Bond if not the ultimate lone wolf?)

Given that recurring theme in Forster's work and his own background as a European filmmaker who now calls America home, it was only a matter of time until he got around to making a film that dealt with the immigrant experience. But that's just one part of the sprawling tale that unfolds in Forster's latest film, The Kite Runner, the big-screen version of Khaled Hosseini's acclaimed 2003 novel. Both the book and the film tell the decade- and globe-spanning story of Amir, an Afghan-born novelist who fled to the United States as a boy following the Soviet invasion of his homeland. The first half of the movie is an extended flashback to his happy childhood in Kabul, where he and his best friend Hassan (who also happens to his servant) spend their days indulging in their favorite pastime: kite fighting. An only child whose widowed father is a respected but emotionally distant intellectual, young Amir (Zekiria Ebrahimi) looks to Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada) to provide the warmth and love he doesn't receive at home, and the eternally loyal Hassan is more than happy to oblige, listening to his buddy's stories and defending him against local bullies.

Their friendship undergoes a profound shift, however, when one of their regular tormenters corners Hassan and rapes him, while Amir watches from the shadows, too frightened to come to his aid. Guilt-ridden over his inaction, he takes his frustration and shame out on Hassan, even conspiring to have the boy kicked out of his house. Not long after, Amir himself is forced to flee when Russian soldiers march through the streets of Kabul. Following a harrowing escape into Pakistan, he and his father end up in San Francisco, where they become part of a sizeable community of Afghan refugees who meet every weekend at a local flea market. It's here that a now grown Amir (played by United 93's Khalid Abdalla) catches a glimpse of his future wife Soraya (Atossa Leoni), who is immediately drawn to the quiet man with intense eyes and heartbreaking stories.

At this point, the narrative shifts into the present tense. On the eve of his first book’s publication, Amir receives a phone call from one of his father's friends asking him to return to the country of his birth. It seems that Hassan survived the invasion, only to be executed by the Taliban, which seized power after the Russians left. But Hassan had a son, Sohrab, who was taken to an orphanage and hasn't been seen since. Although he's initially reluctant to embark on a rescue mission, Amir is compelled to return to Kabul after learning a long-kept secret about his exact relationship to his childhood friend. Once there, he's shocked to find the city he loved in tatters, run by thugs who use religion as a weapon to keep the public in line while privately satisfying their own immoral desires.

One of the flaws of Hosseini's narrative is that it relies heavily on a number of dramatic conveniences that are almost too tidy to believe. Yet the story he's telling is so emotionally rich, you're willing to go along with it. This puts Forster in a difficult position, as he's expected to follow the events of the novel without the aid of the author's confident prose. In the end, he keeps the film aloft by adopting an agreeably low-key tone. There's no bombastic score, overwritten first-person narration or heavy-handed visual metaphors to distract from the compelling external and internal journey Amir goes on. Forster has also cast the film extremely well, from the adult performers (Abdalla in particular proves himself a natural-born leading man) to the novice child actors, who were famously spirited out of Afghanistan over concerns that they would be targeted by religious extremists for participating in some of the movie's more risqué scenes.

Much like the book, the film version of The Kite Runner is bound to connect with moviegoers from all walks of life. It's also the kind of well-crafted crowd-pleaser that Oscar voters go nuts for, so don't be surprised if it becomes the dark-horse candidate at next year's ceremony. Although you'll likely see more artistically daring movies this fall, few will be as satisfying as The Kite Runner.


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