At this year’s Academy Awards, the race for Best Foreign Language film came down to two horses: Mustang (which neatly fits the metaphor, yeah?) and Son of Saul. It’s completely understandable that the latter won: it’s a rather revolutionary work, which justified re-visiting the holocaust by its bold technique and astonishing integrity. Mustang is not revolutionary, it’s just a very solid and well-constructed film that is eye-opening without being heavy-handed.

Five sisters go to the beach after their final class for the semester. There they play in the water with some boys. It is a sequence of pure beauty and delight: young people enjoying a classic vibe. School’s out, and they are free.

But there’s the rub – because they’re in a Black Sea town in Turkey, not Sydney or Santa Monica, and a local old lady, watching from afar, doesn’t like what she sees. The sisters are orphans, living with their progressive or at least easy-going grandmother, and when the nosy old biddy dobs them in to their uncle, he takes it upon himself to tighten the reins. These beautiful free, somewhat wild horses are going to be broken.

The magic trick of Mustang is that it’s a scathing indictment of traditional patriarchal control in modern Turkey without being at all heavy handed. You’re in for the story and the message comes free. I had no idea this stuff went on in contemporary Turkey; that exposes some ignorance on my part and made the film all the more powerful.

The performances are all terrific but the girls are just sublime. The actresses – the youngest is thirteen – are astonishingly believable as sisters. In the opening, sunny, completely enticing early scenes, when the “mustang” is free, the way the girls move together, through the streets and open spaces of their town, is extraordinary. They flow like a single organism that contracts and expands, exchanging positions, following and leading, their energy seemingly binding them on invisible elastic cords, not so much like a school of fish as an amoeba.

Warren Ellis contributes a score made up of cello, flute and violin that suits the tone of the film perfectly, which is dreamy, soft and fluid, despite the imposing subject matter. It’s the debut feature for writer / director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who made the film for just €1,300,000. We’ll be hearing more from her.

Son of Saul

tumblr_nxgc9g0fVh1qm7fcfo1_500**** (out of five)

László Nemes’ Oscar-winning Son of Saul is as experimental as mainstream narrative cinema gets, and as bold. Set in Auschwitz in 1944 during the planning of a prisoner uprising, the film – and, very specifically here, the camera – follows Saul (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jewish prisoner and Sonderkommando, as he tries to do one significant act of morality amongst the absolute horror of his surrounds.

The Sonderkommando were able-bodied prisoner work units within the death camps who aided with the disposal of gas chamber victims. They were separated from the general prisoner population and given adequate rations and sleep to remain productive (although, of course, everything here is relative, and we’re still talking about extreme and nightmarish conditions). With every move he makes to complete his objective, Saul risks his own life, the lives of others including those he “works with”, and the uprising itself. The stakes are as high as they get, and the milieu as dramatic as they come.

When I say the camera follows Saul, I mean it really follows Saul. Not to be glib, but the aesthetic here, bold and striking, is similar to that of a “first-person” shooter”, in that Saul is always in frame, usually centered, as the camera follows his every move. Beyond Saul, however – and here lies a crucial aesthetic choice – the world is out of focus. Nemes’ shoots the whole thing with an incredibly narrow depth of field, so while Saul is sharp, even the bodies he drags are blurry.

In a way, this technique makes the film bearable. We know these are bodies, and we’re glad not to see them. But on other levels, Nemes is getting to something, I think, of the mind-set Saul has to exist in in order to go about his business the way he does. He “sees but does not see”. Meanwhile, the soundtrack supplies us with endless horrors – but is also stylistically situated to reflect Saul’s emotional defenses: Nemes has stated that, to be truly realistic, we would hear much more screaming on the soundtrack, but Saul filters out the screams as much as he can, for his – and therefore our – protection.

It is an astonishing technical feat, especially considering the entire world the filmmakers must have constructed, only to shoot most of it out of focus. On a story level, the film is as murky as those blurry images, which fits in with the controlled chaos of the camp but also may alienate some viewers to the point of distraction. I gave up trying to keep track of a couple of story elements and instead let the world envelop me. Thank goodness, after an hour and fifty minutes, I was able to walk into the sunshine; Nemes, in his debut feature, has created such an immersive experience that it is hell to be part of, and yet must be experienced.