|"The Kite Runner" engrosses you from its exquisite opening credits to its final frame. Unless you've read Khaled Hosseini's 2003 novel on which this is based, you blessedly won't have a clue as to what's going to happen next, especially in the final third of the movie. It opens nationwide today.
Significantly, it would have opened about six weeks ago were it not for the real-life conundrum this movie's making sparked. Central to this story of two young Afghan boys—Amir and Hassan—is a scene in which Hassan, played by Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, is raped by another adolescent. His best friend, Amir, played by Zekeria Ebrahimi, secretly witnesses the act but is frozen into inaction by fear.
That scene propels the rest of the movie's narrative. It also created an international and moral debate because the young Afghan actor playing Hassan, along with his family, claimed prior to the movie's release that if this scene got out in Afghanistan, they would be in danger.
Charges flew. Paramount Vantage, which is distributing the movie, said everyone involved was well aware of what the script called for. The family says it didn't realize such a scene was there until a few days before cameras rolled on it. The family says it filmed the scene reluctantly and later asked that it be cut altogether.
The upshot is that the filmmakers didn't remove the scene (in fact, they added a few shots with body doubles "for continuity," according to one of the producers), but a couple of weeks ago they evacuated several of the boys involved in the filming to the United Arab Emirates.
This sort of real-life impact usually falls into the domain of documentary filmmaking, but here is a striking example of how art not only imitates but also influences life.
Directed by Mark Forster ("Monster's Ball," "Finding Neverland") and adapted by David Benioff, "The Kite Runner"—as a film—is superb.
It opens in San Francisco in 2000, with an adult Amir (Khalid Abdalla) getting a call from an old friend asking him to come back to the land of his birth. We travel back to 1978 Kabul—on the verge of a Soviet invasion—and meet the younger Amir and Hassan, best friends and kite-flying partners. Amir, however, is of the ethnic majority Pashtun, while Hassan is a minority Hazara—and also the son of Amir's family servant.
Amir and Hassan are inseparable—the Sultans of Kabul, they imagine. They love American movies, fly kites in the village tournament (which proceeds terrifically like a dog-fight), and get rides in the new Mustang that belongs to Amir's well-to-do father, Baba (played brilliantly by Homayoun Ershadi).
Baba is a free thinker, which isn't an asset in 1978 Kabul. "The mullahs want to rule our souls, and the communists tell us we don't have any," he tells Amir. When Amir catches his father drinking and brings up sin, Baba says there's only one sin: theft. Every other sin is merely a variation on that, he argues.
Amir and Hassan are both fundamentally changed, however, by the incident mentioned above. Amir takes his guilt out on Hassan, and after the Soviets invade, Amir and Baba flee the country.
We fast forward many years to California, where Amir and Baba have settled and Amir has completed college even as Baba—a dignified and courageous man—has worked at a convenience store.
Years pass. Amir writes, falls for a girl, takes care of his father. And then he gets that phone call. That moment sets in motion the last part of the movie, which is variously suspenseful, terrifying, moving.
"The Kite Runner" is in both English and Dari (with subtitles), and Alberto Iglesias' score combined with the dusty visuals helps take you away—though when the Taliban appear on film, you quickly want to leave.
But redemption for Amir—and others—is possible, so you stay and are rewarded with deft filmmaking and a narrative that will have you in its grip days later.
So my biggest problem with "The Kite Runner" isn't what's on screen. It's what happened off.
Production personnel did not do due diligence, and people—children, no less—involved with the film were less safe because of it. If we can divorce the artful product from the mechanism that produced it, then—according to Baba—we've sinned.
For we've stolen from ourselves the ability to make distinctions that matter.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for strong thematic material including the sexual assault of a child, violence and brief strong language. Reviewer's note: The rape scene is not graphic but still disturbing. There are also shots of slaughtered animals, and a scene of a Sharia law stoning.
Director: Marc Forster
Writer: David Benioff (from the novel by Khaled Hosseini)
Cast: Young Amir: Zekeria Ebrahimi; Young Hassan: Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada; Older Amir: Khalid Abdalla; Rahim: Shaun Toub; Baba: Homayoun Ershadi; Soraya: Atossa Leoni.