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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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TIFF 2015: "Mustang"

One of the best elements of the Toronto International Film Festival is the sense of discovery when your schedule changes, you run into a theater to try and see something you weren’t planning to that morning, and you almost instantly realize that you’re watching something special. It would be entirely against my obsessive planning that forces me to revise my screening schedule roughly 427 times before I actually get to Toronto, but there’s a part of me that wants to someday do a festival like this blind. Just see what’s screening next. Because I wasn’t planning to see “Mustang” when I took off for Toronto. I would have missed one of TIFF’s best films.

The French entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film centers on five sisters living in a coastal village on the Black Sea. Their parents are dead, and they’re watched over by their uncle and grandmother. Honestly, the whole village watches over them, and most of them are disapproving. All five of these girls (played by non-professional actors who are 100% genuine) are beautiful, and some of them are reaching an age where their beauty gets noticed by others—boys want to be near them and women have a cultural impetus to make sure they stay chaste. Their lives change when a neighbor witnesses them just being girls, having fun with some local boys on a beach. Their grandmother and uncle see this action as shameful and scandalous, even making all five go to a doctor to make sure their virginity remains intact. They turn their home into a prison, or a “wife factory,” taking the girls out of school, putting bars on the windows, and working hard to marry them off one by one.

On one level, “Mustang” is a character study about five memorable sisters, led by the youngest, who becomes our eyes into this world. On another, it’s a deeply thematic piece about family, support and gender assumptions. It’s impossible to keep a mustang in a pen or keep a tide from coming in. Putting bars on the windows just makes the girls more attractive to the boys in town, and merely presents a new challenge for the more rebellious sisters to overcome. When they learn that the soccer stadium is having a "women only" night, after having been told they can't go to a game because they can't be around men, they break out and jump on a bus to the game. The scene in which their grandmother catches them in a shot on TV produced the biggest laugh so far at TIFF. Even more damaging, making sex mysterious and dangerous makes it even more desirable. And the girls respond in different ways to not just being a part of a wife factory but constantly accused of sin. Some rebel. Some retreat. All five are well-drawn characters, but they also take on a cumulative strength as sisters. Even in the brown, shapeless dresses they are forced to wear, they stand out.

Co-written by Alice Winocour (who also directed “Disorder” at this year’s TIFF) and director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, nothing about “Mustang” feels forced or overly scripted. And it so easily could have. This is a story that gets very dark as it goes along, as the sisters are separated and married off, but Ergüven manages her tones perfectly. None of it feels forced or sentimental. The action feels motivated and emotion feels genuine. 

Through it all, the character of the youngest, Lale, comes front and center. She is a careful observer, seeing that which her sisters go through and wanting something else. She learns from their lessons. This is a striking, genuine performance from Günes Sensoy, one of the non-professional actors in the piece. Like all of the characters, her actions feel organic. You can see her thinking, planning, and wanting more than her uncle, grandmother, and really her society are willing to give her. Her story becomes that of millions of women who have looked at the world around them and found they needed more. And her final moment is unlikely to be topped for the best ending of this year’s TIFF. This is a beautiful film. I can’t wait for the rest of the world to discover it for themselves.

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