Two-Legged Horse

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San Sebastian Film Festival

A starving urchin is transformed into an animal ridden by a rich boy with no legs in Samira Makhmalbaf's wantonly cruel "Two-Legged Horse." This allegory about power and totalitarianism, written by Iranian filmmaker-in-exile Mohsen Makhmalbaf, reeks of bitterness and loathing against the powers-that-be, while it raises serious questions about the use of child actors in such roles. A punishing watch at best, this Wild Bunch title will have a hard ride finding commercial audiences.

What is memorable about the film is its striking imagery and its pervading sense of hopelessness, a constant in all Samira Makhmalbaf's work from "The Apple" to "Blackboards." Had this been a book or a play, its cruelty might have been digestible; in a film, the imagery is graphically repulsive.

We are first introduced to a teenage boy struggling with a birth defect that makes it hard for him to walk and speak. He lives, not on the street, but underground in a field full of smoking holes. This hellish scene, which could have been painted by Hieronymus Bosch, springs to life when a man with a turban calls an army of homeless boys out of their holes and offers a single job: that of being the "horse" for the son of a rich man who has lost his legs, and his mother, when they stepped on a mine.

Where director Bahman Ghobadi ventured into the territory of young mine victims in "Turtles Can Fly" with a certain amount of sensitivity and compassion, here Samira Makhmalbaf presses the allegory key with all her might. The 10-year-old legless boy wears a fur-lined Genghis Khan hat, emphasizing his family's wealth, and soon flaunts an arrogant personality that makes him a symbol of tyranny more than a real victim.

The boy who becomes his mount, carrying him on his shoulders and submitting to all sorts of humiliations, is the true victim here. The concept of human beings reduced to the status of animals is extremely clear from the word go, and the only development to this idea is that the "horse boy" undergoes ever great sadism at the hands of the "legless boy".

The big issue here is how these unfortunate children pulled through the filming, which took place in Afghanistan and which was interrupted by a hand grenade thrown on the set. None of the non-professional actors is clearly identified by name on the print or in the press book, making them seem even more anonymnous and expendable.

In one of the film's many cruel scenes, a group of men on horseback play some kind of polo with a dead animal, while avid spectators look on. Perhaps the most human response to "Two-Legged Horse" is just to look away.

Production company: Makhmalbaf Film House, Wild Bunch.
Cast: Ziya Mirza Mohamad, Haron Ahad, Gol Gotai Karimi, Khojeh Nader, Yasin Tavildar.
Director: Samira Makhmalbaf.
Screenwriters: Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
Executive producer: Mehrdad Zonnour.
Director of photography: Farzad Jodat.
Production designer: Akbar Meshkini.
Music: Tolibkhon Shahidi.
Editor: Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch, Paris.
104 minutes.

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