Wednesday, November 18, 2015

France's submission for the Oscar is... Turkish! Deniz Gamze Ergüven's exhilarating MUSTANG

What are the ways out of (or around) the forced marriage by her fundamentalist family of a young Muslim girl to a man she has no interest in or connection to? We learn a few of these in the new movie MUSTANG, and they are, for the most part, utterly crap alternatives -- one worse than the next. And considering that the film has, as its collective heroine, five sisters, all of marriageable age, Mustang proves a treasure trove of anti-fundamentalist messaging. It is also, despite its sometimes sorrowful events, an absolutely thrilling, exhilarating and often joyful experience.

Written and directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven (shown at left) -- a cosmopolitan young filmmaker born in Turkey and educated in France, South Africa and the USA -- the movie offers yet again a Turkish tale of the evils of fundamentalism and patriarchy, particularly where the female of the species is concerned. We've seen a number of these movies with Turkish settings, from Bliss and The Edge of Heaven to the BFLF Oscar entry, When We Leave and especially last year's surprise The WatchTower. None, however, has had quite the bracing effect of bringing its theme to life as does Ms  Ergüven's effort.

I suspect this is because the filmmaker concentrates as much on the vitality of her heroines as she does on their plight. Consequently, we are immediately charmed and continue to react to the girls' bravery and spunk, despite some of the awful things that will happen to them.

This becomes a fine balancing act, and Ergüven pulls it off rather spectacularly. She has terrific help from the young actress, Günes Sensoy, who in her film debut, proves remarkably gifted at creating a character named Lale (above), who turns out to be part "Annie" and part "Nancy Drew" but mostly just a decent and believable kid -- raised, as were her sisters, by her grandmother -- who suddenly sees her life turned upside down by an angry fundamentalist uncle with designs, I would guess, on the dowries these five attractive sisters will fetch.

The movie begins with a high-spirited scene at the beach as school lets out and the girls bid goodbye to a beloved teacher, after which the sisters and a few of the young boys go for a frolic in the sea. From there it's all down-hill, as the fundamentalism of the male elder and, yes, the enabling women of the family and town, crush our girls. Yet the spiral is leavened with near-constant push-back from the younger set. The form this takes ranges from talk-back humor to out-and-out disobedience.

There is a price to pay, of course, and it comes as one after another of the sisters is married off. To whom and how makes for fascinating viewing, as do the various ways in which the sisters do or don't avoid the worst. What actually is the worst becomes the movie's unsettling shock and surprise.

Toward the finale, Mustang (whose title is never spelled out, but you'll readily understand to what it refers) turns into a kind of thrilling life-and-death struggle: a thriller, a mystery, a chase-and-action movie -- all without lessening or slighting its theme and message.

The film is France's submission for Best Foreign Language Film this year, and despite its seeming much more Turkish than French, it is indeed a co-production of France, Turkey, Qatar and Germany. Under any label, it's a damned good film.

Mustang -- from the Cohen Media Group, in Turkish with English subtitles and running 97 minutes -- opens this Friday, November 20, in New York City at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and in Los Angels at Laemmle's Royal. Over the weeks to come it will appear in another dozen cities (including, on January 15, the Living Room Theater and the Regal Shadowood here in Boca Raton and the Tower Theater and Miami Beach Cinematheque in Miami; the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables; at the Regal Hollywood in Naples; the Regal Bell Tower in Ft. Myers; and the Regal Winter Park in Orlando. Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters around the country.

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