Mustang (2015) review: A powerful, magical feminist masterpiece

Film

Mustang is a film which (as is the case with many foreign language flicks) has taken a while to make its way over to the UK. First released in France back in June 2015, after a successful showing at Cannes, ‘Mustang’ was actually only released in select UK theatres in May of this year.

In a small Turkish village, five orphaned teenage sisters play on the beach on their way home from school at the start of their long summer holiday. They splash around with some boys from the school, jumping on the boys’ shoulders so they can wrestle each other into the warm waters. By the time they have arrive home, their world has changed forever, as news has reached their strict grandmother (via a nosey neighbour), that they have been “putting their private parts against boys’ necks”. Soon the girls find themselves under virtual house arrest, having all items which could “corrupt” them removed from their lives and being groomed for life as wives and mothers, having their freedom ripped away from them. The three eldest sisters are taken to have a “virginity test”, finding themselves at the mercy of a middle-aged male doctor armed with a speculum.

Seen largely through the eyes of youngest sister Lala (brilliantly played by Gunes Sensoy), director Deniz Gamze Ergüven expertly weaves a tale that is equal parts endearingly mundane, truly horrifying and a little bit magical. Events that are seen through the eyes of a grown-up could have dominated the whole film, but are instead reduced to mere footnotes and shadows, as Lale’s understanding of them is limited. At the same time, moments where the girls play together achieve a kind of magic as you can feel Lale reveling in the simple joy they bring her. By subverting the way in which the events are viewed, Ergüven gives what could have been a well-worn tale, a truly fresh voice.

The girls, and the Turkish countryside, are filmed with the utmost reverence and love, portraying their beauty in spite of the bleak circumstances. The sisters retain their sense of humour, and provide a few laugh out loud moments in the midst of the most difficult situations. However, as the girls are married off, one by one, the horrors become more real for Lale, and the remaining girls’ freedom becomes more and more restricted to ensure they comply. While the men of the world they occupy eat separately, shoot guns in the air and lob fireworks onto football pitches, the girls’ sexuality is treated as the most dangerous and subversive thing in society.

The real joy of cinema is being transported to another place for the duration of a film – be it galaxies far, far away, a zombie-infested dystopia, or a very real, very current horror. Ergüven, and the terrific ensemble cast, throw a spotlight on a modern tragedy; that women the world over are still having to fight for their right to freedom from oppression. The magical realism of ‘Mustang’ helps the reality of life, which affects far too many women in our world, truly hit home. This is a powerful, magical, raw, feminist masterpiece.

9 out of 10

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