The film is a vision of the freedom and light spirit of youth but conversely, it also chronicles a certain destruction of the human spirit, and how the best intentions can sometimes be instrumental in the demise of hope. Lale is the youngest of five sisters, living in a small Turkish village outside Istanbul. The last day of school brings about a feeling of carefree merriment, as Lale and her siblings indulge in a day of splashing in the surf with their classmates, some of whom are boys.
This innocent frolicking brings scandal to the ears of the closed, conservative village where the girls live, extricating strict punishment at the hands of their grandmother and uncle, who decide that the girls will no longer be allowed to attend school, but will instead remain home to be trained in domestic duties, and eventually, auctioned off into marriage.
Confined at home, and no longer allowed to use their clothes, which are replaced by gray and shapeless garb, everything that has made them happy is taken away from them: makeup, books, computer, and the telephone. The sisters find solace in each other and their childhood games.
Their hope of escaping this new life of cruel restrictions is continuously fed by Lale, who like Chekhov’s Irina, is still very much a child but at the same time wise enough to know that this is not the life she is meant to have. She engineers an escape to a football match with her sisters where their last free and untroubled moments together are lived. After they return, their lives are changed forever.
As they are presented to prospective husbands and their families, they are married off one by one. Sonay, the eldest, is the only one who is truly happy with the match because fortuitously she is promised to the boy she passionately loves. The other sisters are not so lucky. Selma, the second eldest, hates her new husband and her purity is questioned when she doesn’t bleed on her wedding night.
The sisters are brought together one more time, amid tragedy that strikes the family, allowing ugly secrets to be revealed. Lale knows she must find a way out, lest her be trapped in a life she has never wanted, salvation presents itself in the strangest way, Istanbul looming over her like a protective shadow.
The film offers a harsh and honest view of the strict cultural traditions in Turkey, where often women are treated like a commodity to be traded or sold off to the highest bidder. This reality is interwoven with the beauty of the sisters themselves who, in their innocence and youth, are like a breath of promise for change and new possibilities.
* Mustang is a strong contender for this year’s Academy Awards, under the Best Foreign Film category.