DVD Picks & Passes

The Kite Runner (2007) - Pick

Atonement(2001) - Pass

Recently released on DVD, The Kite Runner and Atonement present striking thematic similarities. Both are based on admired novels, and tell a generation-spanning story involving children, war, shame, guilt and efforts to make amends.

In both films, the story is set in motion when a child from a well-to-do family surreptitiously witnesses a confusing, disturbing incident involving a close member of their household, who is or seems to be assaulted in a shameful way.

The child’s confusion and discomfort turns against the other, leading to a fateful choice to tell a damning lie about an unrelated event, resulting in shame and banishment for an innocent party from a less-well-off family.

Years pass and the protagonist grows up, traveling overseas, becoming involved in other things, including writing — and slowly becoming fully cognizant of the harm done. Eventually, an opportunity for atonement is offered … or is it?

Here the films diverge. In The Kite Runner, someone promises, “There is a way to be good again” — and there is. In Atonement, an act of reparation is ultimately exposed as a narcissistic act of self-deception.

Based on the WW2-set novel by British writer Ian McEwan, Atonement can be seen as a bleak meditation on the futility of man’s own efforts to put right his transgressions. Significantly, McEwan is an atheist, and has been quoted on the moral quandary of the atheist who feels the conviction of conscience as inexorably as any theist, but has no forgiving God to turn to.

By contrast, The Kite Runner, based on the first novel by Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini, is a more traditionally uplifting story.

Set largely in Afghanistan from before the Soviet invasion through to the rise of the Taliban, the film offers a worthwhile look at aspects of Middle-Eastern experience foreign to many Americans, of moderate and liberal as well as extremist Islamic culture.

The children’s game of dueling kites, in which each party attempts to sever the other’s strings, plays a key role. (The title refers to chasing after and retrieving a severed kite.)

Atonement’s bleakness doesn’t necessarily make it a bad film. John Paul II once noted that when artists “explore the darkest depths of the soul,” they may still express “the universal desire for redemption.”

As an Ecclesiastes-like lament of hopelessness without God, Atonement could make thought-provoking viewing for critical adult viewers. Still, its rough R-rated content, together with its non-redemptive ending, make it harder to recommend than The Kite Runner.

Content advisory

The Kite Runner: Non-explicit depiction of an emasculating rape; some assaultive violence, including a death by Talibani stoning; a couple of profane and obscene expressions; varied Islamic milieu. Okay for adults and discerning older teens. Atonement: Disturbing, sometimes gory war-related images, much obscene language; partial nudity; a scene of clothed but strong sexuality; briefly glimpsed molestation (non-explicit). Aimed at adults.