The title of “Mustang” refers to five free-spirited sisters in a rural Turkish village, who are first seen coltishly frolicking in the Black Sea. It’s the last day of school, and the girls are are engaging in chicken fights with their male classmates.
“One month we were fine, then everything went to s--t,” says Lale (Gunes Sensoy), the youngest child, foreshadowing what is to come.
After a neighbor informs their grandmother (Nihal Koldas), who is raising the orphaned girls, and a rigid uncle that their crotches rubbed against the back of the boys’ necks, the family overreacts with beatings, virginity tests and barred windows. Cooking and housekeeping lessons turn the home into a “wife factory.”
Sure enough, the grandmother’s answer for reclaiming the family’s sunken reputation is arranged marriages for the untamed teens while they’re still “pure and chaste.”
So begins Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Erguven’s story of a clash of civilizations, in which Sonay, Selma, Ece, Nur and Lale’s need for youthful freedom and the chance to pursue their dreams run up against a socially conservative, patriarchal culture that values them only for procreation and their worth to men.
The female director’s feature debut beautifully captures the girls’ warm and loving sisterhood, one that isn’t easily contained or denied in a world that insists on denying them.
To fight off the boredom, the rebellious sisters instigate dangerous, nerve-racking actions despite risking severe punishment, including a mad escape to attend an all-women’s soccer game.
Scenes where families gather to agree on the arranged marriages are fascinating as much for what doesn’t occur as what does. Nor is the emphasis on virginity ever far away – after Selma’s wedding night, the family gathers on the other side of the door, demanding to see the sheets for signs of blood. When there isn’t, she is rushed to a doctor for a vaginal exam, a gun belonging to the groom’s father sticking out of his belt.
Much of the film is seen through the vantage point of Lale, who despite her age of around 10 is the most rebellious and ingenious of the girls. As she watches her older sisters get married off, she begins plotting her escape. It’s Lale’s fierce determination, above all, that represents the struggle of girls and women for equality. “Mustang” succeeds skillfully and movingly in showing their unbridled march for equal rights ultimately can’t and won’t be denied.
3 1/2 stars
Starring: Gunes Sensoy, Ilayda Akdogan, Doga Zeynap Doguslu, Nihal Koldas
Director: Deniz Gamze Erguven
Running time: 97 minutes
Rating: Unrated, but PG-13 for mature sexual content, mature thematic material.
The Lowdown: Cultures collide for five sisters in a rural Turkish village. In French-Turkish with subtitles.