Review by John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Director
A Film by Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Turkey • Drama• 93 min.
This Oscar nominee for "Best Foreign Language Film" was Mountain Shadow’s January, 2016 show.
“Every renaissance comes to the world with a cry, the cry of the human spirit to be free.” – Anne Sullivan, teacher and companion to Helen Keller
Mention Turkey today and those who have traveled there might say it’s a wonderful place to visit, but they wouldn’t want to live there. The evening news brings with it daily images of Syrian refugees flooding across its southern border, civil unrest in the streets, and a repressive Erdoğan government that reinforces strict Islamic codes of conduct.
At first one might think it’s an unlikely setting for what Deniz Gamze Ergüven, the co-writer and director of Mustang, describes as a fairy tale. It is not, however, a “once upon a time … and they lived happily ever after” kind of story. It’s more like the brothers Grimm, with the role of Rapunzel locked in the tower played by five young sisters; who are orphaned and bound to each other by blood and ferocious affection. * [See footnote.]
A tyrranical and secretly abusive uncle plays the part of the evil stepmother. The grandmother would be a fairy godmother, who can hardly prevail against the strict taboos of a dark world in which Lale, the heroine, and her sisters are entrapped. There are the charming and not-so-charming young princes who can only rescue these damsels by means of arranged marriages. And then there’s Yasin, the delivery truck driver on the road from imprisonment to freedom, who will play the part of the impish elf.
It’s the last day of school, and the girls say goodbye to their beloved teacher -- who's moving to Istanbul and modernity -- as the five sisters head back to their uncle’s village in northern Turkey. The sun is shining and the lure of the beach with schoolboys is too tempting to resist. The scene is playful, flirtatious adolescence that could have been reenacted anywhere on the globe. But this is a place where coquettishness is perceived as flagrant impurity.
The village gossip mill throws the uncle into a tirade, as he locks up the fair maidens in their cloistered tower; so that they might learn the proper way of female domestication. Gone are the brightly colored clothes and spirits, as the girls don sackcloth, and are taught the right way to make dolmas. Of paramount importance, as the older girls are separated off in arranged marriages, is the virginity code that leads to tragic consequences.
But meanwhile, all that’s forbidden becomes low-hanging temptations, of course. When young Lale asks her uncle if she can accompany him to the quarter-finals of the Super League soccer tournament, it’s out of the question. “You can’t be around all of those men,” he says. But the unbridled young fillies can’t be tamed, as they all slip out of their corral.
Barred windows and locked doors can only restrain the inevitable for awhile. The irony, of course, is how those same padlocks and doors become a barricade to the past when it would try to break a wild pony.
Mustang is about the irrepressible, indefatigable human spirit to struggle against all odds for self-determination and individuation. Seen in that light, this fairy tale might be regarded as less make-believe, and more suitably an apt depiction of the reality of a place like Turkey today.
* Footnote: In the original version of the Grimm’s fairy tale, Rapunzel, the princess naively asks her stepmother why her dress has become so tight around her growing belly; following the prince’s secret visit to her chamber. Due to fallout from critics, a subsequent version of the story deleted what was perceived as adults-only content.