Refinding a Spirit That Can Soar
Oh, but this is a beautiful film about human ugliness — spinelessness, small-mindedness, selfishness, and shame — and the possibility of moving beyond it all to a new place of joy, one that’s all the more meaningful for being so hard won. So modern and enlightened in its portrait of progressiveness, it is so wonderfully traditional in its embrace of the power of love and friendship. So rapturous in its depiction of merriment, it is so intently harsh in its illustration of secret humiliation. How often does a single movie seem to capture the very essence of what it means to be alive and aware and imperfect in so simple a story? This is one of the very best films of 2007, and one that so perfectly puts a stamp on our confusing and distressing times.
Kabul in 1978 is a vibrant city, alive with human endeavor (and women in Western clothing!). The Taliban has not yet come, though the revolution is on the horizon, but young pals Amir and Hassan know nothing of it: they spend their days going to the cinema to see The Magnificent Seven for the thousandth time and flying their kites over the city’s rooftops. Oh, the faces of these kids! Zekeria Ebrahimi and Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, as Amir and Hassan, respectively, are both untrained as actors and fresh and unrestrained with it, as uninhibited and conversely as full of boyish secrets as little boys are — much of the wonder of The Kite Runner is the reminder they offer us of how spontaneous film can feel. We believe that Amir, the son of a rich man, and Hassan, the son of that rich man’s servant, could be so sublimely suited to each other — they exude a Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer vibe that knows no cultural boundaries. (Director Marc Forster [Stranger Than Fiction, Stay] previously demonstrated his acumen for working with child actors and representing the complicated culture of childhood in the wonderful Finding Neverland.)
But something bad happens: perhaps it’s worth a minor spoiler to say that it is the rape of a child. Hassan is attacked by a gang of teenage boys, and though the scene is not graphic, there is no doubt what is happening… partly because we see it through the eyes of Amir, who does nothing to stop the assault, though he clearly could have. Though anyone familiar with Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel, upon which this is based, will already be aware of this pivotal event, it’s worth the spoiler, I think, to reveal it to those who mightn’t have been aware of it because the violence perpetrated upon Hassan — physical, emotional, and psychological — is in itself is not a subject of great suspense, and because it becomes so hideous a metaphor (and it should be hideous) for Afghanistan as a nation. This is not a point the film makes explicitly, which remains resolutely in the realm of the personal. But it’s what moves the story beyond its simple if highly effective and touching melodrama about aching regret and terrible memories — a universally human story — into an arena far larger and more pertinent to much that’s happening in the world today.
I’m talking about the systematic attempts to close down of expressiveness and joy that we’re seeing everywhere: in the Middle East, of course — “they don’t let you be human,” one observer notes later of the Taliban — but also of the stifled surveillance culture we Westerners are living in too, where “abstinence” is held up as an ideal but innocence is no defense for an accused. Because The Kite Runner is as much about the American Amir becomes as a teenager, when he and his father flee the coming of the Taliban, and as an adult (now played by the Scottish-by-birth Khalid Abdalla: United 93), as a thirtysomething writer living in San Francisco at the very beginning of the 21st century (and notably just before 9/11). A phone call from the old country from someone he was not expecting to hear from rocks him, churns up the past, and sends him on a trip that opens his eyes to what has happened to his homeland… and what has happened to himself as a person because of that horrific even that still looms over him.
It’s like a horror story, in some ways, this last act of the film that takes us to the landscape, both actual and metaphoric, that is the result of a giving up on hope and on personal courage; Afghanistan today looks like Mars, its rolling hills denuded of every tree, and its people stripped of their hearts and souls. And Amir is but a shell of a man, too, for all that he appears pretty happy. And it’s about him finding a way back to a spirit within himself where he can fly a kite again. It’s all as simple, and as profound, as that.