People are capable of the most terrible acts. When attention is paid to this in films, however, it usually concerns war dramas or characters are maneuvered into tight positions, so that they no longer see any other way out. Not so in ‘Two-Legged Horse’, the fourth full-length feature by the still young Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf. This film exposes the human tendency towards sadism in a way that is uncommon in contemporary cinema. You rarely get it served so raw and realistic.
A young disabled boy in Afghanistan is left at home alone because his wealthy father has to take his sister to hospital. The kid is not mobile – he is missing both legs due to an exploded landmine, which further killed his mother. To take him to and from school, among other things, his father hires the strong, but poverty-stricken and presumably mildly mentally handicapped Guiah. He is thrilled with the $ 1 a day he receives for his work as a ‘beast of burden’ and is committed to keeping his job, no matter how humiliating. The disabled boy treats Guiah badly. He constantly calls him “horse” or “donkey,” hits him with a twig as if he were a real horse, and throws stones at him. However, this seems to stem mainly from jealousy. The boy has no friends and is constantly dependent on others because of his physical disability. Even if his father is so rich. Poor Guiah, however, has a strong body with especially two functioning legs, and the boy constantly looks enviously at his slave.
Had this been a conventional Hollywood film, a bond would undoubtedly have grown naturally between master and slave, with the former recognizing his mistakes. But the painful thing about this film is that it does not happen. The boys are beginning to grow closer to each other, but the rich man’s son continues to resist his dependence and treats Guiah more and more like a real horse. For example, he has to sleep in the stable and he is fed straw. The humiliation and especially the physical torture that Guiah has to undergo, make ‘Two-Legged Horse’ a tough film to watch. Moreover, relatively little happens and Makhmalbaf uses an atypical storytelling style. The story of Guiah is interspersed with images of a newborn foal and occasionally scenes are presented as they might be in Guiah’s mind, throwing his master away. Ultimately, the film takes just a little too long as a meditation on sadism (but also masochism in particular).
The story is beautifully portrayed, yes, but despite all the misery it just does not stick enough, because it remains rather adrift. No answers are given and it remains unclear what exactly is going on in Guiah’s mind. He occasionally rebels out loud against his master, but keeps coming back. He doesn’t seem to do that for the money, but rather out of a sense of belonging. At the end, the idea lingers that there is more to do with the unusual relationship between the two boys. But it is certain that the film offers a special experience.