An Afghan emigre returns to his homeland to redeem his sins — and those of his father — in “The Kite Runner.” With careful nurturing, helmer Marc Forster’s richly detailed screen translation of Khaled Hosseini’s beloved bestseller should reach beyond the book’s many fans. Nuanced perfs and standout production design convey story in cinematic terms, preserving the narrative’s emotional power and historical sweep as it spans continents and decades. While the largely unknown cast and subtitled dialogue may present a marketing challenge, they also create a feeling of authenticity in this poignant, intimate epic, which should attract a strong following among discerning audiences.
Paramount Vantage, which is rolling out “The Kite Runner” under its Paramount Classics label, has delayed the pic’s release by six weeks owing to a rape scene featuring young Afghan thesp Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada. New release date — Dec. 14, after the end of the boy’s school year — is a response to expressed fears that he could be attacked for his participation in the scene.
Deft adaptation by David Benioff (“25th Hour,” “Troy”) condenses cast of characters and events, but incorporates nearly all the novel’s major moments, while the dialogue, much of it lifted directly from the page, finds a natural balance between English and Dari delivery. Most noticeable change — the absence of a first-person narrator — serves to make the visuals an equal purveyor of narrative information.
Central idea — that no matter what a person’s done in the past, there’s an opportunity for a second chance — provides a universally resonant emotional hook for protag’s journey from cowardice to courage.
Pic is divided into three parts, with the longest piece outlining the character’s youth in Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion. Fascinating midsection, set in California’s expat community during the late 1980s, gets somewhat short shrift compared to the book. Final segment, also much abridged, skips ahead 12 years to bring his odyssey full circle.
Tale begins in San Francisco in 2000, as writer Amir (Khalid Abdalla) is summoned by phone to the Pakistani sickbed of his father’s friend. Latter’s enigmatic promise, “There’s a way to be good again,” speaks to the younger man’s long-simmering sense of guilt.
Cut to cosmopolitan Kabul in 1978, where privileged 12-year-old Amir (Zekiria Ebrahimi) and his faithful companion/servant, Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada), run freely through the Afghan capital. Contrasts in their dress, dwellings and vocabulary clearly evoke the difference between city’s affluent Pashtun majority and denigrated Hazara minority.
A sensitive only child whose mother died in childbirth, Amir yearns for the affection of his emotionally distant father, Baba (Homayoun Ershadi, “A Taste of Cherry”), and feels jealous whenever Hassan earns his praise. He relates more easily to empathetic family friend Rahim Khan (Shaun Toub, “Crash”).
Kabul’s annual kite-fighting competition offers an opportunity for Amir to earn Baba’s respect, but also sets the stage for the lad’s failure to rescue Hassan, who’s brutalized by neighborhood bullies (in a scene not quite as explicit as it is in the book). Amir’s sense of shame soon leads to a second, more definitive betrayal.
It’s this shame that haunts Amir over the years, catalyzing a dangerous journey to Taliban-controlled Kabul in 2000. Here, in stark contrast to the melting pot of cultures and colors of the 1970s, the grim, gray production design forcefully depicts the devastation wrought over the years. Broken buildings rot in disrepair, with no vegetation to be seen. Cripples sell their artificial legs to feed their families, and public executions take place in the soccer stadium.
The climactic surprises that await Amir in Kabul, which were already credulity-straining in the book, remain so in the film, but fast-paced action helps suspend disbelief. Epilogue provides a satisfying conclusion to pic’s focus on family connections.
Cogent production design is matched by convincing perfs from the entire cast, all of Middle Eastern ancestry. As the adult Amir, Abdalla (“United 93”), in his first leading role, creates a sympathetic, multidimensional character that remains believable even in the most melodramatic situations. Ershadi’s Baba is not the great bear of a man described in the book, but he successfully projects the character’s outsize personality and physical courage. Toub makes wise Khan the perfect foil.
Remarkable nonpro child thesps Ebrahimi and Mahmoodzada perfectly embody the ethnic differences and class tensions between Amir and Hassan, as well as the chemistry of brotherhood.
Pic’s emphasis on Amir’s early relationships leaves relatively little screen time for his wife Soraya (Atossa Leoni) and her parents, characters who further illustrate Afghan traditions of honor and pride.
Shot on location in the Western Chinese desert that borders Afghanistan, the film marks the first use of China to portray another country. Ace widescreen lensing by Roberto Schaefer makes aerial shots of swooping, feinting kites pic’s leitmotif.
Only clunker among tech credits is Alberto Iglesias’ overly insistent score.