Though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences appears to be addressing its diversity problem — a press release last week promised to double the organization's membership of women and people of color by 2020 — this year's crop of nominees in the major categories is an embarrassment (and an enormous PR gaffe) for the Oscars. That said, one thing the Academy does right every year is introduce American viewers to a handful of movies produced around the world in the Best Foreign Picture category. Mustang, by Turkish writer-director Deniz Gamze Erguven, which opens Friday exclusively at the Cedar Lee, is one such film.
Mustang tells the story of five sisters: Sonay, Selma, Ece, Nur and Lale. They are teenagers, mostly. On the last day of school in their northern Turkish town, they walk home and are spotted playing in the waters of the Black Sea. Their innocent chicken fighting on the shoulders of male classmates is interpreted by horrified onlookers as explicitly sexual: "rubbing their privates on boys' necks!" One immediately fears, rather like in Jaws, that these happy youngsters splashing in their school uniforms are somehow doomed.
And they are.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, rural Turkey (1,000 kilometers from Istanbul) retains an almost medieval understanding of gender roles and moral expectations. The sisters, after the Black Sea episode, are literally imprisoned in the home of their uncle — their parents died when they were young. Bars are welded to the windows. The girls are forced to certify their chastity in humiliating "virginity tests" at the doctor's office. "If there was any doubt," says their grandma, when Selma asks why no one believed them when they said they were virgins, "you'd never be married." The home, indeed, is transformed into "wife school," where they are taught to cook and clean and host guests. Their "provocative" clothes are locked in a cupboard, and the sisters must only appear in shapeless "shit-colored" dresses.
Such repression tends to wear on teenage girls, and the sisters, especially as their grandma and uncle begin to wed them off, respond in increasingly hostile, desperate ways, much to the confusion and contempt of their elders.
Mustang is not, however, merely an examination of arranged-marriage customs. (Though it is painful to watch clueless fathers and uncles and grandmas proclaim, "They seem to like each other fine!" of their children, moments after they've met, and moments before "agreeing to" a match.) Much more, the movie echoes the small-town themes of American cinema — Footloose, anyone? — where moral repression is the norm. But this is no Footloose. Mustang dramatizes the damaging ways in which young women are stripped not only of their girlhood, but of their personhood, as others conspire to manage their lives for them.
All five young performers are exceptional — instantly sisters — as they share covert intel about their private sexual discoveries, steal each other's clothes, and commiserate by any means available (laughter, tears, truancy) during their predicament and its assorted consequences. The youngest, Lale (Gunes Sensoy) is the true mustang of the bunch. Too young to be married, she witnesses the emotional wreckage of her older sisters and, refusing to be tamed, takes steps to ensure that she won't suffer the same fate.
A simple, emotive score by Warren Ellis is a rich complement to the various unfolding dramas.
Though Son of Saul, Hungary's must-see entry in the foreign picture category about a Holocaust extermination camp (directed by Lazslo Nemes), likely has the momentum and freight to take home the Oscar in the foreign picture category, Mustang is a powerful, troubling film as well.