How a movie with a Turkish writer-director, Turkish actors, dialogue entirely in Turkish and exclusively Turkish settings can be France’s submission for the 2016 Academy Awards, I have no idea – some sort of jiggery-pokery about financing, perhaps. Maybe the shared screenplay credit for French-born Alice Winocour makes all the difference.
Whatever the reason, “Mustang” benefits from the designation. No Turkish movie has been nominated for a foreign film Oscar in the 60 years that category has been competitive, but 37 French films have been. (Nine have won.) “Mustang” joined that category Thursday and deserves its nomination.
The title refers specifically to the youngest of five sisters in rural Turkey, a bronco who will not be broken. The five scandalize the village by goofing around with boys at the seashore; the fully-clothed girls ride on the boys’ shoulders in the water, trying to knock each other off, like American teenagers in any municipal pool.
Their normally sympathetic grandmother accuses of them of becoming sexually aroused in public, shaming the family. The uncle who took them in after their parents died decides they will remain on his property to protect their purity, both in body and reputation. He withdraws them from school, cancels all trips and starts inviting families over for arranged marriages. Now the girls must decide whether to submit, rebel or flee.
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Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who makes her feature debut as writer-director after a couple of short films, tells the story exclusively from the girls’ point of view – both emotionally, as they have all our sympathy, and physically, as almost nothing happens that one of them could not be seeing.
She and Winocour go too far in making the uncle hateful; I didn’t need to know he’d molested one of the teenagers, because locking them in his house behind iron gates and high walls makes him repugnant enough. But the girls have distinct and interesting characters, from the one who doesn’t find confinement a problem – she’s happy to be “forced” to marry the guy she sneaks off to see – to the one who attempts a desperate form of escape. (Only one of the five actresses has other screen credits, though all give good performances.)
The scornful narrator, little Lale (charismatic Güneş Nezihe Şensoy), fights hardest against the restrictions: Istanbul, where her beloved schoolteacher has moved, beckons from afar like the promised land. But with her uncle ready to marry off her next-oldest sibling, who can’t be more than 14, she’s soon going to be left without an ally in the house.
Ergüven and Winocour hold education up as the solution; only when girls get schooling can they figure out how to change male-dominated behavior, at least as far as their society will allow. Their uncle seems to sense this – perhaps that’s why he snatches them out of school – and you can tell his nieces will have a long way to go, even if their futures include diplomas.
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Güneş Nezihe Şensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan.
Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven.
Length: 97 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 (mature thematic material, sexual content and a rude gesture).