Erguven’s movie about five sisters coming of age and dealing with the repressive society of rural Turkey was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars this year, but didn’t win. I’m cool with both of those things, actually. Mustang is a solid, often quite gripping movie anchored by a really great ensemble cast. The movie hinges around an inciting incident that makes the five sisters’ uncle (their parents are dead) realize that the oldest of these young girls is fast approaching the obscenely young age that this culture considers marriageable. It becomes of paramount importance to keep these girls “pure” in every conceivable way. And so the long, baggy dresses come out; the doors are locked; the bars (yes, literal bars) go on the windows; and, painfully quickly, the marriages start to be arranged. The movie then becomes about the efforts of these young women to support each other in a life that is becoming increasingly not worth living. This isn’t an utterly bleak movie as it could easily be; the mustang of the title seems to be, and I know it’s corny, the unquenchable spirit of these girls. But as time ticks on, the five sisters start to fracture, to be separated by circumstances and marriage and ultimately by their ability or inability to deal with the repressive strictures they face. The film doesn’t flinch away from the unhealthy ways the girls begin to act out as they attempt to find some way to create an identity or a reality for themselves in a society and a family dedicated to stripping those things away from them. The cast is quite good. Three of the girls distinguish themselves. Gunes Sensoy plays the youngest daughter and, by consequence of that, the most resilient and strongest of them all, the one the adults simply can’t break; she’s quite brilliant and the moments of real happiness that she finds in the film are really beautiful. Elit Iscan is quite brilliant, incredibly naturalistic even in a cast that is, by and large, verynaturalistic, as the middle girl, the one who meets the restrictions with a sardonic, sarcastic air, but ultimately finds herself driven to act out in increasingly dangerous ways. And Tugbu Sunguroglu is excellent as the next to oldest, the second in line for marriage; the sequence surrounding her marriage and subsequent honeymoon is among the most flabbergasting in the movie in the way that it reveals the unbelievably ridiculous standards women are held to in societies like this one. The uncle character is not particularly well served in the film; I would like to have seen the movie have enough courage to make him something other than a cardboard character whose only purpose is to slam doors and scream at the top of his lungs. And the suddenness of his character change at the beginning of the film isn’t really adequately explained. But these are very minor flaws and it’s hard to criticize the movie for focusing on the five sisters too much and not doing enough to humanize the villain. The movie is very obviously after a lot more than dramatic artistry if you know what I mean and as a piece of propaganda it works to perfection. The last fifteen minutes or so are absolutely heart-in-throat and the final shot is one I won’t forget anytime soon. Mustang is an excellent film, a compelling document of the harsh and absurd realities women still face in much of the world and an eloquently crafted character study as well. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – film compellingly documents harsh treatment of women in well-characterized and well-performed story of five sisters in rural Turkey.