Thursday, May 5, 2016

"Mustang" and "Gett"

Recent foreign films have been a severely mixed bag, and I've had a lot of disappointments this season.  However, there are two I want to highlight that explore the same issue from different angles: women in traditional societies trying to break free from the constraints of outdated expectations.  In "Mustang," five young sisters are deemed too wild and headstrong for their conservative Turkish grandmother and uncle, so they're kept under lock and key until they can be married off, one by one.  In "Gett," which is Hebrew for "divorce," a woman named Viviane Amsalem goes to the rabbinical courts to fight for a divorce from her estranged husband Elisha, which becomes an extraordinarily long and protracted battle because Elisha will not give the required consent.

I was initially wary of watching both films, worried that they'd be very dark and depressing.  This wasn't the case for "Mustang" at all, which pulses with the pent-up energy and frustrations of its protagonists.  The story is told from the perspective of the youngest sister, Lale (Güneş Şensoy) the most rebellious and outspoken.  The girl's parents are long dead and they are being raised by a loving grandmother (Nihal Koldaş).  But when gossip starts to spread about the girls, the grandmother and Uncler Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) clamp down on their freedoms, eventually pulling them all from school, imprisoning them in the house, and training them to become wives.  The older sisters, Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu), Ece (Elit İşcan), and Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu), react to these events in various ways, some accepting and some not.  However, Lale views the marriages as the systematic destruction of her family, and plots a daring escape.

"Mustang" is the feature film debut of Deniz Gamze Ergüven, a French director of Turkish descent.  In her hands, the world of the five sisters is full of light and color and motion.  The emotional highs are especially high, as the girls sneak out with their friends, circumvent rules, and find little ways to rebel at home.  The young actresses are very natural, full of energy and spirit.  Güneş Şensoy gives the key performance as Lale, who is too young to understand social and cultural expectations, only that her world has gotten smaller and smaller as freedoms are removed, and then that her sisters are being taken away from her as they get married. The narrative mirrors this, primarily concerned with Lale's emotional life as her relationships and family change.  Little domestic incidents have massive repercussions, and every change in routine is worrying.  The house itself is practically a character, initially full of activity and happiness, but soon cold and bleak as it empties out.  In a suspenseful later sequence, it becomes a prison that must be thwarted.

It's the simplicity of "Mustang" that gives it so much unexpected power.  The girls could be from any strict, traditional family - and I should note that the film occasionally resembles Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides," which was about five Catholic sisters in suburban America.  The story is told in terms that are so familiar and universal, it's easy to identify with not only the girls, but those who try to control them.  The older relatives are well-meaning and have what they believe to be the girls' best interests at heart, steering them toward their idea of happiness.  I appreciated that at least one of the sisters fully embraces the path laid out for her, and her marriage is something to be truly celebrated.  However, film's finale makes clear in no uncertain terms that this is also a form of oppression, and Lale's impulse for rebellion and self-determination is important to recognize and respect.  It's a lovely film with a message I hope gets across loud and clear to those who need to hear it.

"Gett" is also about an escape from marriage, but a union that has grown unhappy over two decades.  Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz) has been living apart from her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) for years.  Their children are grown and Viviane remains faithful and dutiful, but she no longer wishes to be married, so she goes to court to get a divorce.  However, Jewish law requires that the husband give permission in order for the wife to divorce, and the rabbinical courts only find it fit to intervene in extreme cases.  Viviane simply having become incompatible with Elisha is difficult for them to parse.  And despite the best efforts of the Vivane and her lawyer Carmel Ben-Tovim (Menashe Noy), Elisha and his brother Rabbi Shimon (Sasson Gabai) are allowed to stall and block the process for years, while the court continually pushes for reconciliation.  We get to watch the whole, infuriating process from Viviane's first appearance in court to the final one, where a resolution is finally reached.

This is one of the best courtroom dramas in years, not only because of the fascinating dynamics of the Amsalem marriage, but because the court itself is essentially put on trial.  We watch the empaneled trio of rabbis struggle with each new development, clearly reluctant to use what power they have to compel Elisha to act.  Ultimately, the ability to issue the gett really doesn't belong to them, and the antics in the courtroom only have as much weight as the feuding couple give them.  The film is full of dryly funny moments and intense, uncomfortable ones, as each new hearing reveals a little more about the Amsalems and their relationship.  Witnesses are brought in, and intimate details of everyone's private lives are dissected in the courtroom.  Most media condenses trials for dramatic effect, but "Gett" gets a lot of mileage out of doing the opposite, ticking off the time that has passed between each hearing as Vivane's frustration grows.    

It's the performances that are the main event in "Gett," and they're all excellent here.  Of the quartet of main actors, Ronit Elkabetz runs the show as Viviane, who fights every step of the way to have her complaints heard and be viewed on equal terms as her husband.  When forced to say silent in court, her face still says volumes.  And when she finally does seize the opportunity to have her say, it's magnificent.  Simon Abkarian is also very strong as Elisha, quieter and more enigmatic.  It's a mystery as to what his motivations for denying the divorce are - does he still have feelings for his wife, or is he being obstructionist out of spite? Menashe Noy and Sasson Gabai as their respective advocates do most of the talking, and get plenty of good moments themselves.  


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