I’ve never been to Turkey, and so have little to add to the debate over whether the heroines of Mustang (and their wild, luxurious hair) fight a fight common to its young women, at least those raised in its Black Sea villages, far from the cosmopolitan mores of Istanbul: I must believe critics like this one, who helpfully retitled the film “Five French Girls Walk Into an Antaolian Village.” (I can say, with total assurance, that their souls may be Turkish, but the girls’ hair is without doubt Parisian.) Under these circumstances, then, I think it is fair to treat the film as allegory, or fairy tale (as it would surely not be the first fairy tale to be as sunlit as it is, as dark-hearted as it is.) As allegory, as a fairy tale about freedom, as a faraway Rocky for teenage girls, it is wonderful. I loved this movie.
Speaking of critics, those with better memories than mine have compared it to Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides, and there are broad similarities between the plots: Five sisters — in this case, orphans living with their grandmother and uncle — permanently lit by rings of golden light must navigate their comings of age under the watchful eyes of their communities. Too often, films like this focus on beauty, an inconstant, uninteresting thing: They are beautiful (everyone is beautiful, if it is declared so with great authority, and so we declare it); the focus, though, is not on that, or on titillation, but on their liberty. After a notably discreet episode of seaside horse-play, community standards are brought to bear upon them: The oldest two will be married off, they will be beaten (eldest to youngest), they will be deprived of their computers and books, they will be locked in a house atop a hill above the sea and taught to cook for their new masters, the husbands who await their public showcase.
I saw in very little of this criticism of modern-day Turkey; instead, I found a battle that has been fought since time immemorial: for the freedom of a woman’s mind and body. It is not so removed from the housing projects of 1950s Naples in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, to make one of many possible cross-cultural comparisons.
The film’s pacing is notably accomplished, seamlessly transitioning from episodes of extreme dreaminess to scenes of considerable tension, like the flight to a women’s-only soccer game. (This includes one of the film’s most touching moments, when an aunt causes a town-wide blackout in order to keep the girl’s uncle from viewing the televised game — which would have given away her nieces’ transgression.) This is echoed toward the film’s conclusion, a literally pulse-pounding episode that I won’t give away here.
I wouldn’t think that this film speaks for the whole of Turkey. The director, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, spoke of her dismay in how Midnight Express assumed that role when she was a child. Last year I saw Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s deeply sad Ali: Fear Eats the Soul; the titular immigrant in the film is Moroccan, but I wondered how his experiences would be viewed by Germany’s many Turkish immigrants. To me, it is a cross between Footloose and My Brilliant Friend and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, another work made in the intersection of France and Islamic culture. The fight for liberty is hardly unique to Iran and Turkey, though; it is fought in all ways and all places and often by women. The promise of liberation, held out so tantalizingly in the film’s closing scenes, is as universal an ambition as they come.
Last review: Winter in Wartime