Dir: Samira Makhmalbaf. Iran, 2008. 101 mins.
An angry, tough and despondent film from Samira Makhmalbaf, this isn’t just a nightmarish vision of the underdeveloped world tearing itself to pieces - it’s also a portrait of humanity at its most despicably abject. Though classified as Iranian, Two-Legged Horse was shot entirely in Afghanistan, with the bleak, unforgiving natural landscapes playing a major part in the story of a destitute teenager hired to carry the legless son of a rich man on his shoulders, becoming the two-legged horse of the title.
The sado-masochistic relationship between the two is blown up into an allegory of the conflict between the exploiters and the exploited, those who have power and those who have no choice but to submit to it. In doing this, the film catalogues impossible excesses that many viewers will find too much to bear. A perfect subject for a short, this repetitive feature will feature at festivals and specialised film programmes thanks to Samira Makhmalbaf’s name and the considerable interest generated by the Afghan settings, but this is unlikely to be met with the same enthusiasm as her previous work.
As usual in her films, this is once again a sequence of metaphors, intended here to display human nature at its worst with no glimmer of hope. By the end, the extent of sheer, unadulterated cruelty perpetrated by one boy on another reaches the point where one begins to suspect the filmmaker might be obsessed with the sadistic angle of these harrowing images.
The picture begins and ends with the same image, a warren of pipes covered by yellow layers of dirt, which has become a sort of underground refuge for abandoned children. They emerge from this structure in droves when an old man announces he is offering a $1-a-day work for a clean, healthy boy. The boy finally chosen looks slightly retarded and speaks with difficulty, but he is elated to become the two-legged horse of a 10-year-old child whose legs have been blown away by a mine.
But he is treated worse than a beast of burden, insulted and deprived of any vestige of self-respect. Every time he wavers or rebels, the threat of being fired and left without a livelihood brings him back to his knees. In a perverted version of the Darwinian system, the fittest here are those who have the means to rule and humiliate those who haven’t.
Makhmalbaf’s script, written by her father, Mohsen, is firm on the fact that both boys are victims and this allows for an impressive show of agility by the legless child, reaching a sort of twisted apotheosis when, abandoned by his ride, he gallops on all fours, hands and stumps, through the alleys of the village, an image that will not soon be forgotten. And when he lies naked and motionless in the bath, his deformity is painful enough to make one forget, at least for a brief while, the nasty character hidden in that small body.
These and other similarly arresting images are often more eloquent than the didactically allegorical fiction of the piece. All actors are non-professionals and painfully authentic. The only shame is that the overstays its welcome by stretching and belabouring messages to the limits of counter-productivity.
Makhmalbaf Film House
+33 1 5301 5030
Ziya Mirza Mohamed
Gol Gotai Karimi