Mark Reviews Movies

Mustang

MUSTANG

3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven

Cast: Günes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Tugba Sunguroglu, Ilayda Akdogan, Nihal G. Koldas, Ayberk Pekcan, Bahar Kerimoglu, Burak Yigit

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, sexual content and a rude gesture)

Running Time: 1:37

Release Date: 11/20/15 (limited); 1/15/16 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 15, 2016

The inciting incident of Mustang is so inconsequential and so innocent that it doesn't even register as a noteworthy incident, let alone something that will incite a battle for freedom, independence, and good old youthful rebellion against the oppressive forces of adults espousing conservative "values." It's a game that probably every child with access to waist-deep water and someone taller than him or herself has played. As a group of kids rollick in the sea on a particularly pleasant day that happens to be the final day of the school year, two girls sit on the shoulders of a pair of boys, each girl trying to knock the other from her perch. Try to imagine anything wrong with that. Try.

In this remote village in Turkey, someone sees that innocent game and doesn't need to try to imagine something wrong with it. This nosy, gossipy neighbor sees the children playing and spots something obscene. She sees the girls sullying themselves, touching parts of themselves—and those parts, at that—against the necks of those boys, and obviously, she assumes, they are doing so in order to receive sexual gratification. Of course, the busybody reveals a lot more about herself in her observations and her need to tattle on the girls, but in this place, the woman sees it as her moral and civic duty to inform the girls' guardians that something vulgar has occurred (We have to assume that the boys' parents or guardians were not told, because "Boys will be boys").

The girls are five sisters. In order from youngest to eldest, they are Lale (Günes Sensoy), Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), Ece (Elit Iscan), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), and Sonay (Ilayda Akodogan). From the very start, the girls are vibrant, carefree, and joyous. They taunt and tease each other, such as joking about Lale offering a tearful farewell to her favorite teacher, who is moving to Istanbul with her boyfriend—likely to escape the prying eyes of people like the tattletale who starts all of this trouble. The teasing is playful, though, and clearly there's a lot of love between them.

The sisters are orphans. Their parents died about a decade ago, and they are being raised by their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) and their uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan). The grandmother receives word of the girls' game in sea, and upon their arrival home, she takes each of them into a room, closes the door, and proceeds to dole out some kind of physical punishment, while the other sisters pound on and howl at the door. There's a reason for this, and it's because the response from girls' uncle would probably be worse. When Erol comes home from work, he scolds the sisters and then proceeds to berate his mother for failing to raise them properly.

There's something undeniably tragic about the character of the grandmother, and it's something that would be far too easy for a filmmaker to overlook or simply omit in order to reinforce the increasing repression of the sisters. The screenplay by Alice Winocour and director Deniz Gamze Ergüven (in an assured directorial debut) neither overlooks nor omits the details. The grandmother does what she does, in part, out of fear—of losing another son on account of her "failure," of losing friends and other relatives because of her ruined reputation as a guardian, of losing her granddaughters because this world simply will not accept their behavior.

That makes all of this worse, really, because the grandmother and other women here seem as if they could be allies to the girls. As the grandmother turns the family's hilltop villa home into a "wife factory" and Erol converts the building into a prison, local women and female relatives arrive to teach the sisters the ways of homemaking in order to prepare the girls for their futures of being obedient wives and dedicated mothers. There are moments, though, in which we can see these women offering little rebellions of their own, such as the way one woman instructs Lale how to make homemade chewing-gum after the grandmother clears the house of the girls' favorite treat—along with anything else that could tempt them to secular ways of the world. When the girls sneak away to attend a soccer game where only women are allowed (The men have been denied entry after a riot), a relative sabotages the electricity to the entire village in order to prevent Erol from seeing his nieces on television.

That act of rebellion is the last straw for the grandmother, who starts arranging marriages for each of her granddaughters. Only Sonay, who has a boyfriend, finds some happiness in the prospect. The others are miserable, and Lale is especially keen to escape this prison before grandma gets around to finding her a husband.

The irony is that all of these attempts to control the sisters are useless. The need to protect their chasteness means nothing when Sonay just finds a "back way" to get around having sex with her boyfriend without losing her virginity or when Selma must undergo a gynecological examination on her wedding night when there's no blood on the sheets, despite her repeated and truthful assertions that she was a virgin (She eventually comes to decide that a lie is the only thing anyone will believe). Furthermore, what kind of "purity" is Erol trying to save when he makes late-night visits to Nur's bedroom, after which the grandmother must hide the sheets?

The addition of higher walls and gates doesn't stop Lale from her mounting rebellion. It only encourages her to find new routes of escape, to seek help from a friendly truck driver (Burak Yigit), and to keep an eye on the keys to her uncle's car.

Amidst an overarching sensation of righteous anger against the injustice of this situation, Ergüven deftly balances the early beats of comedy with ones that gradually but inevitably become tragic. As infuriating and destructive as this scenario is, there is something undeniably joyous in the fight (A lot of credit for that is due to Sensoy's performance), and that's especially true during the climax, when Lale shows how a prison can easily become a fortress. Ultimately, Mustang is a film of overwhelming hope that freedom should always be sought and, with persistent effort, can be achieved.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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