They are young and free when we see them at first, and then they suddenly find themselves trapped inside their house turned into a prison for them. “Mustang”, which was recently Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Award, often feels like a realistic horror film, and it is sad and infuriating to see how these spirited girls are repressed and mistreated in the name of family and tradition, but the movie also finds warm moments of humor and intimacy generated from their strong mutual bond, which deeply touches us as we look into their harsh predicament they do not deserve at all.
Set in a remote rural village in Turkey, the story is mainly told through the viewpoint of Lale (Güneş Şensoy), and we meet her and her four older sisters during their last school day before summer vacation. This also happens to be the last day for Lale’s favorite teacher who is soon going to move to Istanbul, and Lale gives a sincere farewell to her teacher before she leaves the school along with Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu), Ece (Elit İşcan), and Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu).
These five sisters go to the beach along with their male schoolmates, and the girls have a jolly fun as mingling with the boys, but this innocuous moment results in a serious trouble they never imagined. When they return to their family home later, their grandmother (Nihal Koldaş), who has raised her granddaughters together since they were orphaned several years ago, is furious about their reckless behavior on the beach. Somebody in the village saw the girls being rather too close to the boys during their playtime, and, regardless of their innocence, this can be a major scandal in their very conservative village.
If their grandmother is harsh, their uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) is wrathful in his violent rage toward his nieces because, in his petty narrow-minded view, they tarnish the family reputation. The girls are promptly pushed into the medical examination for their virginity certificate (I am not kidding), and then they are confined in the house for preventing any further transgression.
The girls are naturally unhappy about this, but they have no choice but to deal with their new situation. Several old aunts of theirs come to the house, and they and the grandmother begin to prepare the girls for their destined future role – housewife. We see these old ladies teaching the girls several things including cooking and sewing, and the girls actually enjoy their lessons at times.
But that does not mean that the girls completely conform to their confinement, and we see how they respectively find a way to vent their boredom and frustration. For instance, one of Lale’s older sisters has a secret boyfriend, and she hopes that he will rescue her someday from the house. In case of Lale, this plucky little girl shows her irrepressible defiance from time to time, and she even considers escaping from the village for herself even though she knows well that is not possible at present.
As the movie moves along a series of their various episodes, the director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who wrote the screenplay with her co-writer Alice Winocour, brings considerable sensitivity and spirit into her first feature film while closely observing the intimate interactions among her young heroines. As they go through their suffocating summer days together, the cinematographers David Chizallet and Ersin Gok’s camera fluidly moves around and inside the house like another inhabitant, and we gradually get the sense of repression surrounding the girls, which feels palpable even when they are allowed to be outside the house.
The movie is also surprisingly humorous at times. When there will be a big evening soccer game where almost every other girl in the village will go, the girls also want to go there even though their grandmother and uncle will not allow that. Eventually, they decide to attempt a grand escapade for that, and their attempt culminates to a hilarious moment which drew a big chuckle from me.
None the less, there is always the hard reality in their house, and they become more aware of it as they begin to be regarded as potential brides one by one. Suitors and their families visit the house, and some of the girls get married with different results. During her wedding night, one of the girls is very unhappy about her marriage which will be another prison for her, and then her wedding night ends with a humiliating treatment which is one of the most painful moments in the film.
Under Ergüven’s thoughtful direction, the young actresses in the film, most of whom are non-professional performers, are engaging and spontaneous in their natural performance. While some of them are less distinctive than others, they are all believable together as sisters who have grew up together for years. As her character slowly becomes the dramatic center of the film later, Güneş Şensoy ably delivers several key scenes in the film, and Elit İşcan, who had more acting experience compared to her co-stars, is effective during an emotionally devastating scene.
“Mustang” has received lots of critical acclaims since it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in last year (it won the Europa Cinemas Label Award in the Directors’ Fortnight section), and this small but powerful film surely deserves that for its vivid, empathetic presentation of unfair treatments on its young heroines, whose desperate circumstance sadly reflects countless similar cases around the world. They will never go back to the way they were, and we can only hope for the best in the end.