Given the political climate of the world, there may be fewer more prescient topics than Islamic fundamentalism. Rather than focus on literal violence and radical extremism, however, Mustang critiques the patriarchal impositions forced on women. Although the context is specific, it can also be seen as a critique of fundamental patriarchy in general. There are parallels to be drawn, if you like, with certain contemporary and historic vagaries of Christianity. The treatment imposed here on five orphaned teenage girls is much more dogged, however, more insistently repressive than we generally associate with western conservative modes.
In rural Turkey, after Lale, Nur, Ece, Selma, and Sonay are seen playing innocently on the beach with some boys, their scandalized neighbour reports it to their guardians, a submissive grandmother and an abusive, domineering uncle, Erol. Erol sets about barring the windows of the house, turning it into a fortress to keep them captive until they can each be married off to appropriate suitors. In the meantime they are ordered to wear drab clothing, and each are taken to have their virginity tested by a doctor.
The girls, who represent a modern alternate to the rabid strictures of their elders, are acutely self-conscious of their repression and dream of escaping to Istanbul. The discipline imposed on them only makes them more indignant. Lale sneaks out at night, secretly learning to operate Erol’s car so that one day she can steal it and drive away. Sonay too climbs out the window, meeting a secret lover, and Ece invites a stranger to have sex with her. As the plan to marry the girls off begins to affect the siblings in more ways than one, two remaining sisters become determined to escape before they meet an all too similar fate.
Mustang is a stinging critique of extreme, religious conservativism in Turkey, showing those who impose such strictures to be brutish and hypocritical tyrants. The real indictment here is, of course, the cultural attitude towards women, who are regarded by the men as not much more than breeding cattle to be branded and auctioned off to the highest bidder. Regrettably, it also shows us the way that women can become complicit in the very patriarchy that undermines them. On one hand, the neighbour who dobs in the girls is a willing Judas; on the other, there are the women (the elders in the household) who comply out of necessity, urging the younger girls to do the same in order to survive and avoid shame and violence.
If the depiction of most men in the film seems one-sided, it is only appropriate, since the perspective of the movie is from those on the receiving end of such oppression. Furthermore, it would be defeatist to try and rationalise these men when the point being made relates to the complete lack of rational logic inherent in their oppressive behaviour.
The film is made relatable both by its humanism and its doubling as a teenage coming-of-age drama with themes of alienation. That we find the five protagonists endearing only makes their plight more fraught, more moving. Mustang is a culturally significant film that both stirs and entertains.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10