This female-centric film has similarities with The Virgin Suicides, but with a more intimate approach to a culturally persistent order. Mustang is about the oppressive values wrought by archaic patriarchal customs, told through the womanhood – or rather arrested development – of five sisters.
It starts with an innocent splash at the beach with the local boys. Once they get home the girls are scolded for inappropriate behavior. This simple introduction sets the tone for the rest of the movie, in which the girls try to grow-up in the confines of a very conservative household.
The plot doesn’t rely on easy melodrama and addresses the complexities of the situation. There’s a balance between portraying the plight of the sisters and their resilience against a deeply ingrained system.
At first, the sisters are presented as a cohesive unit – spending days being trained for domesticity or idle hours lying around like a heap of kittens. This makes their predicament all the more affecting once each is married off.
We see the details that set the sisters apart and reflect how women respond in such a situation – play the game to their advantage, get unintentionally screwed over by those who do and suffer silently, escape with desperate measures, and learn from the previous generations.
This isn’t to say that the adults around them are plain evil. The older generations are emphatic to the plight of the young ones, even though they have to follow tradition. In one scene, the older women worked together to prevent the Uncle from seeing the girls on TV who have escaped to see a football match.
There are hints of abuse from Erol and he too becomes a victim of the system. Not all men here are portrayed as perpetrators – Selma’s groom doesn’t like the arrangement either and affable Yasin proves to be the silver lining for Lale.
At the center of all this is a great cast of girls who have a convincing group dynamic. While Günes Sensoy has the most screen time and can be considered the main character, the rest of the cast also did well – from İlayda Akdoğan as the headstrong eldest, Sonay to Doğa Doğuşlu as the second to the youngest playful Nur.
The sun-dappled cinematography gives their scenes a certain glow and features beautiful settings in Turkey. The director is able to capture the nuances of the sisters’ story. In one scene, Nur and Lale pretend to swim on a bed, an innocent game that bears sad implications.
It’s important to note that the movie is not directly aimed at the whole of Turkey nor is it saying that it is the only country perpetrating repressive patriarchal values.
Mustang is crafted to deliver a message about abuse and harmful archaic beliefs that are left unchecked in pockets of society. Deniz Gamze Ergüven succeeds in doing what she set out to do with a heartfelt poignancy that it can affect everyone, regardless of where they are.
Debates aside, Mustang still packs an emotional punch and serves as a reminder of oppressive conservatism – it’s an engaging fairy tale about outgrowing your innocence, letting go of sibling bonds, and forging your own path.
Mustang is a heartbreaking, beautiful, and insightful story about sisterhood and the oppressive values that nip womanhood in the bud before it can fully blossom.