The landscapes of northern Turkey, the sun hitting the hills close by the Black Sea, are lovely in Deniz Gamze Erguven’s debut feature, “Mustang.”
The five sisters at the center of this powerful film — nominated for a best foreign language Oscar — are lovely, too, full of spirit and joy as they bid goodbye to their teachers and embark on what they expect will be a leisurely summer vacation.
There is nothing lovely, however, about the story “Mustang” tells: of a culture where women are at once oppressed and sexualized, where strict religious tenets and an entrenched patriarchy combine to keep women in subservient roles.
Making their way home after the final day of school, sisters (from youngest to oldest) Lale (Gunes Sensoy), Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), Ece (Elit Iscan), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu) and Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan) stop to frolic in the surf, playing a game where they straddle the shoulders of some boys. A neighbor witnesses the sisters as they laugh and splash around and reports them to their family. To the passerby, the girls’ behavior is lewd, illicit.
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When the girls arrive home, they are greeted with fierce admonishments from their grandmother and their uncle (the sisters are orphans). Like the wild horses that give Erguven’s film its title, the sisters rear up and rebel, but the gossip spreads, the punishments become more severe. Before long, the uncle has put bars on all the windows, locked the doors, and forbidden them to leave. The grandmother brings suitors to the house, determined to marry the older girls off as soon as possible.
“Mustang” has a fairy-tale quality about it, like a Grimms story in which the young heroine (Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood) must face witches or wolves, the cruel vagaries of life and threats of death, before she can realize her destiny. But Erguven’s film, beautifully shot and beautifully performed, cuts its storybook tone with starker, more brutal truths. Anger — aimed at a conservative social order and those complicit in maintaining it — courses through this sad, striking tale.
Rated: PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content and a rude gesture. Starring: Günes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Tugba Sunguroglu. Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven. Running time: 97 minutes. Theater: Flicks.