Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Two-Legged Horse, Samira Makhmalbaf, 2008

This film is by far the best of the recent release films I have seen. Directed by Samira of the premier Iranian filmmaking Makhmalbaf family, and written by her father Mohsen, The Two-legged Horse is beautiful, painful, and a political tirade all at once. This film does what lesser films aspire to but are never able to do in its ability to take an everyday relationship that is both real and an allegory for more urgent, political relationships. Set in a poverty stricken Afghanistan, two boys build a relationship that is a profound and deeply troubling sado-masochistic master-slave affair. The one has no legs, the other no money. And they need each other for survival, the one to get around, the other to stay alive.

The mentally retarded boy, Mervais, wins a competition to become the human horse for the maimed wealthy boy.

What’s so powerful about this film is the fact that the relationship develops from this business arrangement between the one who has legs and the one who has money, moves through power struggle between the two – the master whips his horse, deprives him of food, throws stones at him, humiliates him and cruelly debases him from human to helpless animal. And yet, the animal comes back for more. The animal also knows that his master is dependent on him and though they are few, there are moments when he leaves the young legless boy to fend for himself. And the bond turns from a business arrangement to a something more human, real, a genuine connection between the two. If a scene where the two share a both and watch spiders in the rich boy’s house is the turning point, or the climax of the film, from here, The Two-legged Horse only gets darker. Instead of deepening a relationship based on compassion and comradeship, the film then sees the “master” exploit Mervais with greater cruelty and violence. Eventually, the boy is “transformed” into a horse with saddle, horse shoes (the scene where they are nailed into his feet is not for the squeamish) and even a head, living in a barn with the other animals, eating hay. The abuse is so final that there is nowhere to go but for the human horse to walk away. At the end of the film, there is a call for his replacement that echoes the opening when scores of young boys plead and beg to be the human transportation. And so the nightmare of exploitation will continue.

Ultimately, this is a searing indictment not only of the brutality of human exploitation, but also of the debasement of the people of Afghanistan by its oppressors. Even though the film never moves outside of the small village, or beyond the lives of the two boys, this is a narrative that is set firmly in the desert of a country that has been exploited and bled dry in the interests of someone else’s profit. The fact that the legless boy’s mother stepped on a landmine that killed her and maimed him, makes the stakes clear, and his story as the sadist, tragic. We also know that his sister has a deformity that has taken his father and her to India for a cure, leaving the young boy alone. We might learn why the boy takes his anger out on his slave, but we never feel sorry for him. Rather, these details ensure that the message about sado-masochism ricochets outwards from the two young boys to that at the heart of their country’s recent history.

Filmically, The Two-Legged Horse is beautiful, the camera lingers, and the editing creates connections, rather than telling stories. Mervais is likened through the sharing of the mise-en-scène to the horses, cows and donkeys who appear to have more freedom than he does. In contradistinction, the film periodically cuts to the developing relationship between a mare and her new born pony. Like the one between the amputee and the mentally impaired, that between mother and child horse is filled with contradiction: oscillating between brutal kicking and loving licking and kissing, we are reminded that the bonds of sado-masochism are everywhere in the animal world. The allegory is complete as we are shown the destruction and violence of the master-slave relationship is everywhere, even presumably, in our daily lives.

This is the sado-masochistic relationship at its most virulent, made all the more powerful, poignant and painful by the impotence, and surely, the innocence of the couple of kids. The Two-Legged Horse is a fine allegory of both the abuse we inflict on each other and of the desperate and devastating political world that we live in.

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