It’s beautifully done, and perfectly executed. I found myself completely wrapped up and absorbed, in the plight of this quintet of orphaned sisters. The movie opens with some innocent boisterousness being quickly misinterpreted, with escalating results and punishment. “Mustang” is an internationally co-produced, Turkish-French drama. It was an official France entry, when it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Annual Academy Awards–eventually losing to Hungary’s “Son of Saul”. This is the debut directorial effort from Deniz Gamze Erguven, and she also co-wrote the screenplay with Alice Winocour. It performed quite well at the 41st Cesar Awards, just ahead of the Oscars, winning 4 out of 9 total nominations–including Best First Feature. Oh, and the girls are all wonderful. They are: Gunes Sensoy as Lale, Doga Doguslu as Nur, Elit Iscan as Ece, Tugba Sunguroglu as Selma, and Ilayda Akdogan as Sonay.
An emotional farewell to a departing teacher on the last day of school, is followed by a jovial beach walk, consisting of five sisters and their male classmates. They engage in playful, physical contact in broad daylight, including a game where the girls ride on the boys’ shoulders, and try to knock each other into the ocean. But this is a land of arranged marriages, and expected chastity–and the young women are spotted and scolded for their activity in the sand. Worse yet, when word reaches both their grandmother and uncle (the girls official caretakers), they are made virtual prisoners in their adopted home, as herculean efforts are enacted to maintain their virginity. Bars are installed on doors and windows, outside activity is extremely limited, and slowly attempts are made to marry them off to an array of suitors. Some of this leads to defiance, escape–and unspeakable tragedy. Before long, drastic measures are enacted by the sisters to free themselves.
“Mustang” is simple, effective and elegant. And, at 97 minutes, it’s the briefest of the five Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominees from the recent ceremony. But it doesn’t feel slight, and the screenplay is quite rich. Sentiment creeps in on occasion, but it is mostly held at bay by the extreme naturalism of the youthful performers. The film depicts the kind of culture in which bloody sheets are held out for inspection on the wedding night, and young girls are taken to local doctors to confirm that their virginity is intact. I’m certain that some would find this movie minor in scope, but it has a certain epic quality too. Experiencing the plight of these lively, personable young ladies, being held back by repression and tradition, wields a certain power. To label it “small” does “Mustang” a disservice. This was a worthy contender to the more morose, “Son of Saul”. Bravo to Ms. Erguven and her team of young performers.