Monday, December 14, 2015

Mustang (****)

Directed by Deniz Gamze Erguven


Before any of the action in Mustang starts, we see at least a dozen different international companies attached to its production, which is how a film by a Turkish filmmaker which takes place in Turkey and cast with all Turkish actors ends up being France's 2015 Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film. But thank God these arbiters of cinema put their collective heads together to give Deniz Gamze Erguven a chance to tell this beautiful story. This mostly autobiographical film shows us five orphaned sisters who seem abnormally close, their bond fused together by the constrictions set forth by a temperamental uncle and a helpless grandmother. Their obligation to raise these girls is rarely mixed with compassion or understanding, but a bafflement of the girls' personalities and disobedience. The sisters seem from a different time, a different place, and the time-honored traditions of their Muslim heritage is simply something foreign to them, they cannot comprehend it. 2015 has been a great year for tales of women fighting against the patriarchy, whether it be the trans women of Tangerine stomping through Los Angeles looking for a heartbreaking pimp, or the feisty wives of Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road who risk life and limb to escape the oppressive grip of their tyrannical ruler/husband. Mustang's universe is more grounded in realism, obviously, and Erguven gives these sisters the cinema verit√© service their story deserves. The result is a spirited examination of strident passion flying in the face of conservative ideology, and five girls who realize that their bond with each other is much more important than the rules of an archaic society.

The five sisters previously mentioned are, from oldest to youngest, Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), Ece (Elit Iscan), Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu) and Lale (Gunes Sensoy). When returning home from school one day, they walk to the beach and meet a handful of boys. The girls get into the ocean, get atop the boys' shoulders and chicken fight. Afterward, they raid a local orchard of apples before being threatened by the garden's owner with a shotgun. The sisters laugh it off, but when they return home, their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) is incredulous, laying out punishment to each girl individually. It gets even worse when their uncle, Erol (Ayberk Pekcan), arrives and is apoplectic. The reputation of his nieces is compromised. Having taken over responsibility of the girls after the death of their parents a decade before, Erol's main concern is getting them married and out of his household as soon as possible, before their status as marriage material gets lowered further. The sisters meet Erol's rage with rye wit, refusing to lower themselves to his combative level, but as their rebellious streak grows, his draconian measures grow as well. He makes the girls get examined by a doctor, getting medical documentation of their virginity. He erects bars atop the walls surrounding their home and over the windows. Erol and their grandmother take the girls out of school, trap them in their home to teach them how to be a proper woman and eventual wives. As the oldest, Sonay is first on schedule for an arranged marriage. When Sonay fumbles the attempt by announcing her love for a local boy who lives in their village, the grandmother as well as the visiting suitor has no problem settling for Selma, even though she is visibly unenthusiastic.

The subsequent engagement of each sister - some arranged, some not, some ending in farce and some ending in tragedy - is what takes up the second half of Mustang. All of the sweet but rambunctious behavior is paid for in harsh, spirit-breaking movements by Erol to limit their freedom. Their grandmother, a good-hearted, well-meaning woman, doesn't understand the consequences of teaching her granddaughters of their antiquated culture. She doesn't get that generations have evolved that quickly and that to restrict the young girls' behavior is to actually restrict their soul. There are similarities here between this story and Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, but where Austen found the roots of satire in her story of caged female agency, Erguven can only see despair. Getting married to a stranger, for these wild children, is a fate worse than death. Austen couldn't afford to be this dour. After all, she was trying to sell books, but there's no doubt that at the heart of Mustang is what sat at the heart of Austen's comedies - a desperation for women to be more than a man's property, to accomplish something more fulfilling than finding a proper husband. Austen's books always ended with the protagonist settling down and accepting her place in an unequal society; the endings always betrayed the true greatness of her work. What Erguven captures here is a blazing tale of womanhood, a sparse but powerful examination of what it takes to attain your own independence. Sometimes, it takes a lot more than you can imagine, and for the sisters in Mustang it quite literally becomes a matter of life and death.

As a framing device, the story is told completely from the vantage point of Lale, arguably the most vibrant of a very vibrant group of girls. The performances that Erguven gets from these five amateur actresses is phenomenal, but what she gets from the young Gunes Sensoy is perhaps the most impressive. The actress is employed to translate so much to the audience. Each sister is often meant to offer one personality trait, with Sonay it's vivacity, with Selma it's indifference, etc. But Lale is forced to absorb so much knowledge and so much hardship throughout the film, that Mustang would not be the same if Sensoy had not been up to the task. Erguven has been quite open about the autobiographical nature of Mustang and how the film is often balancing itself between narrative and docudrama. The story here is about a particularly conservative Turkish household, and isn't meant to represent the entire country's culture, but the situation shown here is dire. This is contemporary times, and while the older generation of women, like the girls' grandmother, have accepted their place and have learned to believe that you can grow to love your husband in an arranged marriage, the optimism of the young fights against this thought process until their last breath. As their home becomes more and more like a prison, their urge to break free becomes that more prevalent. So desperate is their cause that the youngest sisters feel only fleeing to Istanbul can be their true saving grace. Mustang's final minutes becomes a thriller of sorts, a true suspense tale of girls running for their lives. Erguven understands the stakes here because she lived through it, and in Mustang she is able to translate that struggle for all the world to see.

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