Mustang (2015) / Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content and a rude gesture
Running Time: 97 min.

Cast: Gunes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Tugba Sunguroglu, Elit Iscan, Ilayda Akdogan, Nihal G. Koldas, Ayberk Pekcan, Burak Yigit
Director: Deniz Gamze Erguven
Screenplay: Alice Winocour, Deniz Gamze Erguven
Review published March 7, 2016

Five orphaned, loving, and seemingly carefree sisters living in a very conservative town in Turkey are growing up fast -- so fast that when they're spotted engaging in a bit of innocent horseplay with some local boys, they're immediately disciplined. The home in which they reside takes to locking down the girls, placing a virtual 'chastity belt' around the home of bars and high walls, lest they go out and bring shame to the family and village they're in. Their day-to-day existence also changes, whereby their guardians and other local ladies put them through a "wife factory", showing them how to dress, cook, sew, and other things they should know in order to fetch the first available man through the process of arranged marriage.

Although it deals with subject matter that isn't always pleasant to watch, Mustang emerges as a very rewarding experience, both as a sociological discussion piece regarding repression within pockets of religious fundamentalist society (and not just in Turkey) as well as a straight-forward drama about five girls coming of age in which their newfound sexuality is something that is outwardly shunned the moment it threatens to emerge.  Their guardians including their grandmother, who seems to be employing a more tough love approach because she cares too much about them to see them fall victim in life in their village, and a man they call Uncle Erol, the son of their grandmother, who completely subscribes to the patriarchal world views on where men and women place in society, and who gets legitimately angry when he learns that the girls could be doing anything that will bring them (i.e. him) shame.  There's also a bit of hypocrisy involved that we learn of within the course of the story that further adds to the complexity of an already perplexing situation for the young women.

Directed and co-written by Turkish-French first-timer Deniz Gamze Erguven, Mustang traverses with adeptness through some complex psychological currents.  Erguven is able to draw forth some very good performances from a cast that is largely inexperienced as actors.  It's a film as much about heartbreak as hope, where even the simplest moments of joy for the young women seem to come at a high cost (a humiliating medical examination to be sure the girls' virginities are still intact provides the only way to allay their irate Uncle), eventually leading them to adopt a rebellious spirit to avoid being completely consumed by the stifling social situation they find themselves in.  Eventually, that rebelliousness turns to self preservation, as their paths in life become more solidified as they begin to mature, resulting in a life that might be, perhaps, extinguished from the happiness they've enjoyed just being in the company of their loving sisters who are all set to be broken up by the arrangement of their marriages.

Although it is subtle in the way it tells its story, offering fleeting peeks rather than blatantly showing some of the more troubling of developments that happen in the tale, Mustang still is able to secure a good deal of emotional interest in the girls and their plights.  A good deal of the reason why comes through the excellent character development, particularly in being able to allow each of the close-knit sisters some time to differentiate each other in their respective personalities, even though they are all somewhat similar in appearance and manner of speaking.  Erguvan tells the story in a very casual and seemingly non-judgmental way, playing events as matter of fact, letting the tension and sense of dread build within our own minds without the need for flash and artifice.  We grow increasingly uncomfortable with the story as it progresses, primarily because the sense of dread and despair seem so palpably real.

Although it does take a bit of time to settle into the story and figure out just what the parameters are, once you're clued in as to just what kind of precarious situation the girls are in, the drama becomes enveloping and subsequently engrossing in how it plays out from there.  Even when there appears to be no happy paths to be able to take for the girls other than to try to follow the one of least danger.  The only power the older women of the village have is in persistently playing a sort of shell game, 'underground rebellions' in a way, to keep the most base outrage of the men at bay by trying to keep any form of indiscretion completely out of sight.  We are left to ponder the ironies of a society that purports to value family and community first, though there seems to be a great deal of dysfunction that is running rampant through both due to the stringent measures, both literal and implied, on young women who are growing up into the patriarchal society, which, to them, quickly becomes more like a prison system. 

Mustang is a vital film, layered and complex, and richly told.  It will gently pluck at your heartstrings, but more than that, it will sear a powerfully indelible image in your mind about the suffocating repression of women that occurs as an everyday form of life in many regions of this world.  Although Erguvan doesn't push with force and make the film angry or overtly political, the film still speaks volumes on potent political themes, presenting them as merely the fact of the situation for us to make our own judgments upon.  Chief among the lessons learned: A way of life without a choice is no way of life to choose.

Qwipster's rating:

2016 Vince Leo