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Mustang - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

There's something hopeful about the very existence of a movie like Mustang, even as it details the way Middle Eastern traditions continue in their efforts to crush the spirit of young women. This is the kind of movie that commands attention, not just within its native Turkey but around the world. See how women's attitudes are changing, see how men, and even older generations of women, conspire to keep them subdued.

In this world, the broader context is the Muslim world, and even the highest aspirations of escape into a freer society is confined to making it out of a small town and into Istanbul. The five girls at the center of this story never talk of leaving their country or even, really, their culture. As in many places in the world, the conflict here resides in the line between rural and urban. Turkey is fairly known, after all, for being among the more tolerant of the countries in the Muslim world. There's a sequence in which the five sisters escape the home they've been confined in and go to a soccer match for an audience exclusively of women. That's still a form of segregation, obviously. But the women in this crowd -- to call them uninhibited would be an understatement.

And so it goes with Lale, Nur, Selma, Ece and Sonay. They are being raised by their grandmother, their parents having died for unrevealed reasons sometime in the distant past. Their male authority figure is their uncle, Erol, whose role in the girls' lives increasingly proves to be sinister and horrifying. And these young women, all preteens or teenagers, live in the modern world. They wear jeans and blouses and have carefree attitudes and would not look out of place in the Western world.

But, their local mores conspire against them. At the beginning of the film, the girls have all just gotten out of school. They go to the beach with a couple of boys, and they frolic in the water. They don't change into swimsuits; they get soaked -- they even swim -- in their school uniforms. Only gradually do you begin to notice the girls' undergarments showing through their white shirts; they way the boys' wet shirts cling to their torsos. But there is nothing lascivious about this scene. They are kids just being kids.

We soon learn, however, that a neighbor witnessed this scene, and the town is awash with gossip regarding their apparently scandalous behavior. The five sisters return home to find their grandmother admonishing them in turn. She takes their phones and computers away from them, locks the stuff up in a cupboard. They are given dresses to wear, which, as one of the girls says, are "shit colored." They're kind of right. The dresses are awful.

Mustang does a few things wrong, but it does a lot right in its storytelling. There's something implicitly accessible about these girls, and Turkish director and co-writer Deniz Gamze Ergüven, here working on her first feature film, never makes this overtly about the Islamic faith itself, which one can imagine makes it more accessible to general audiences both in Turkey and abroad. Although the two things are obviously related, it's more about the broader patriarchal oppression in their society, and the specific ways it manifests in the current world. You won't gain any insight into religion here, but you'll certainly get an idea of how girls and women are treated.

The adults in these girls' lives feel they have failed them by allowing them to become so independent-minded. The grandmother had to do a lot on her own. Presumably the uncle just thought a lot of it just wasn't his problem. The problems that exist are of course easily blamed on other women. The grandmother struggles between empathy for the girls and feeling a need to maintain standing of respectability in her community. In one rather amusing scene, when she sees the girls at the soccer match in the stands on television, she smashes the circuit breakers and even the electronic wire equipment on the street so their uncle won't see them, and thus he -- and everyone on several blocks of their town -- miss the match.

But as with much of this movie, that scene conveys an amusing means of coping with some dark truths. And once the girls return, that's when their fates take a turn that surprises them: the grandmother hires workers to install high fencing to keep the girls from leaving. Eventually they aren't even allowed to return to school. Elder women from the town come and teach them things like sewing and cooking. And soon enough, the older girls begin to be married off. Parents of a young man bring him over, the boy and the girl are seated next to each other and given little recourse but to sit and feel awkward as the parents ask on their behalf for the girl's hand in marriage. The kids get no say in the matter. The oldest girl is married off, and panic ensues when she doesn't bleed on their wedding night. The family is waiting outside their door for the groom to present the sheet. This is a girl who has literally been given a "certificate of virginity." This kind of shit actually happens.

And the next sister is promised to a boy, and they have a double marriage, and even the younger girls are prepped for being offered up to someone. But the youngest two have other ideas in mind, literally plan an escape. This is where Mustang takes a turn for the notably less realistic, amping up the tension with a daring escape on an intended wedding night. Would things ever turn out this way? Maybe that's the point, this turning of the story into what might qualify as fantasy in the end. If so many young women must suffer such awful fates, we want to see at least one or two of them succeed at breaking the mold. That, in a way, is what this movie itself is doing.

The five young Turkish girls in MUSTANG find their defiance stifled by persistent religious tradition.

Overall: B+
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