Mustang: Beautiful Filmmaking in Its Rawest Form

It’s not often that a film will leave me at a loss for words.

Mustang, a foreign film co-produced by France, Germany, and Turkey (in which it’s set), defied every expectation I’d had for how I’d feel when it ended. I knew it had been well-received, that it had won awards, that it had been nominated for a foreign-language Oscar, but going into a movie, that doesn’t always mean much to me. I love science-fiction and fantasy, genre with all its quirks and conventions and rules itching to be broken, and while I know I’ll usually like something like Spotlight, or Selma, or The Imitation Game (to name a few), I never expect to be blown away.

In fact, it’s usually the opposite; I know I’ll sit back for a moment when the screen fades to black and let the blossoming of emotion that comes with any good film wash over me for a second. By the time I stand up, it will have settled, and I’ll be able to explain exactly what I liked about what I just saw.

And for most of Mustang’s 97 minute running time, that seemed to be the case. I could see all the pieces coming together—the characters: deep, engaging, eminently sympathetic and relatable; the story: simple yet familiar, expertly constructing the framework of a coming-of-age story in a world of forbidden sexuality; the score: beautiful, lifting; the setting: in appearance foreign but in truth as universal as they come. It’s as well-crafted as a film can be. Every element does its work, and it does its work perfectly.

But in the final few minutes, almost entirely devoid of dialogue, when the violins and pianos of that bittersweet score begin to soar and fall and celebrate and lament all the freedom gained and lost, all the innocence stolen and beauty found, I lost the ability to think. I kept watching as the credits rolled, savoring every note, overcome with emotion in that heightened, ethereal way nearly indescribable with words alone. I walked out of the theater without any words on my lips or in my head. I just felt.

I don’t usually find writing about films or games or books or any piece of narrative or fiction all that difficult. I say what I liked, what I didn’t, what you can expect. I have a verdict—good or bad, worth the time, or better spent somewhere else.

I can’t do that with Mustang, because I just can’t do it justice. I could talk for thousands of words about how wonderful its characters are, about the story they paint, about the sadness of imprisonment and the little joys of childhood. I could say its actresses are phenomenal, that their characters felt as real to me as the people I see every day. I could go on and on about its depictions of stolen freedom and childhood innocence and sibling bonds and the cycle of tradition and rebellion. But none of those pieces, as amazing as they individually are, can really capture what I love about it.

Mustang is that rare film (or book, or game, or piece in any medium) that is, to indulge in a familiar cliche, greater than the sum of its parts. Something about the gestalt—that intangible totality we always talk about but can never quite define—made me feel alive in the most bittersweet and beautiful way. Maybe it was the characters, or the story, or the music, or the shots or angles or moments of joy or sadness or regret. Maybe it was the intimacy, the way it captured human emotion devoid of the cynicism that seems all too prevalent in everything we make. Maybe it was just the right night for a film.

But if there’s anything I can say, it’s this. Mustang left me speechless. It is a beautiful film. It deserves to be watched.

And if you do decide to watch it, do me a favor. Don’t look up what it’s about. Don’t read a review, or watch a trailer, or find anything beyond what I’ve told you already. Go in blank, without expectations, and let yourself experience it as if you’d just decided on a night at the movies and it had been the only thing playing.

If you enjoy it half as much as I did, it’ll be worth the trip.

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