Rebels with a cause
Five sisters fight for personal freedom in Best Foreign Language Film nominee from Turkey
Mustang, the high-spirited (and Oscar-nominated) film from Turkey, is not about wild horses or the American West. What it is, then, is a scintillatingly lyrical drama about five sisters growing up in a rural village in northern Turkey.
By the tradition-bound standards of their elders, these young women are all on the verge of running wild, which, in this case, means they’re in danger of doing permanent damage to their respective reputations and to the honor of their family.
The dramatic stakes are heightened by the fact that the five siblings are orphans, and so “family” in the girls’ case means their nasty Uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) and their kindly grandmother (an excellent Nihal Koldas). As a patriarch by proxy, Erol is both arrogant and abusive. The grandmother, by pointed contrast, is protective and resourceful, even though very careful to avoid even the smallest sign of transgression against the strictures of traditional propriety.
The film begins with the sisters, fully dressed in school uniforms, cavorting in the surf with some of their male classmates on a very sunny ocean beach. A neighbor passing by sees something she deems “scandalous,” and she takes her accusation to the village authorities.
Uncle Erol promptly orders that his nieces be confined to the family abode and underlines his point by having bars placed over the windows and doors. And the still-supportive grandmother begins launching every kind of old-fashioned damage control she knows of, including finding suitors to whom the eldest sisters can become engaged—in public and at the earliest possible opportunity.
The girls, of course, have to go along with most of this, but their collective spirit of rebellion has only grown stronger amid the absurdities of their confinement. One of them will refuse her engagement in a particularly dramatic fashion, and all five will have the special exhilaration of engineering an escape from their domestic “jail” and then running away to watch and celebrate at a “women only” soccer match.
Filmmaker/actress Deniz Gamze Ergüven, making her feature-film debut as a director, takes a glancing, evocative, semi-impressionistic approach to the story and its assorted dramatic moments. The two most shocking events in the story occur off-screen, with Ergüven attending instead to the emotional fallout and aftershocks experienced by the sisters and others who are onscreen at the time.
Each of the sisters gets individuated, at least briefly, but a kind of group portraiture (that fledgling spirit of rebellion) prevails. The one real exception to that is Lale, the youngest and scrappiest of the group. She’s also the story’s occasional narrator, just often enough to make her point of view count for a little extra.