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▶︎ Beginning is streaming on Mubi from 29 January 2021.
In the opening scene of Dea Kulumbegashvili’s outstanding debut feature, a minister talks to his congregation about the story of Abraham and Isaac. Before he can answer his own question, about the moral a Christian should draw from this Biblical test of faith, the sermon is interrupted by a firebomb thrown through the door. It’s a heart-in-mouth moment, which sets in motion the film’s often oblique narrative, which pivots around the minister’s disillusioned wife.
Yana, the wife (played by Ia Sukhitashvili), is there in the hall during the attack, and moments later we see her outside alone. The image is an enigma. The fire crackles on the soundtrack as the audience is left to guess whether the rest of the congregation survived the attack.
This pattern of withholding information continues through the film. Kulumbegashvili (who co-wrote as well as directed the film) repeatedly keeps answers at bay, whether it’s a plot point, the owner of a point-of-view shot, or even the moral of a Bible story. In one powerful shot near the start of the film the focus pulls away from the burning hall in the distance, rendering it an unrecognisable blur. There’s a lengthy delay before two characters enter the foreground, shot extremely close and perfectly sharp. With Beginning, Kulumbegashvili and her close collaborator DoP Arseni Khachaturan have mastered the art of cinematographic suspense.
Yana, her husband David (Rati Oneli, who produced and co-wrote the film with Kulumbegashvili) and their son Giorgi are outsiders, Jehovah’s Witnesses, in a small town in Georgia, where the Orthodox religion dominates – hence the hostile attack on their prayer meeting. Further, Yana is alienated within her marriage, unsure of her faith, and penned in by gender expectations. She gave up her career as an actress to marry David, but he is callous and controlling (“I created you,” he taunts). Her father, we learn, was much the same. She is prey to another man’s cruelty too, a vicious stranger, played by Kakha Kintsurashvili, who assaults her verbally and then physically in two of the film’s most harrowing scenes, which represent gruesome illustrations of her vulnerability.
As Yana coaches Giorgi and his peers before their baptism, biblical concepts of sanction and reward, sin and righteousness hover overhead. But although her life is encircled by ordeals and self-abnegation, she finds no solace in faith.
Khachaturan’s 35mm photography does much to express this isolation, creating often quite astonishing effects as the characters are framed – in old-fashioned Academy ratio – in medium or long shots, frequently in extended fixed-camera takes. Those long takes make the pace of the film deceptively slow; the narrative has its own grim momentum. With minimal extra lighting, Khachaturan’s velvety chiaroscuro interiors create pockets of warmth that deepen the surrounding darkness. The colour palette is smokily dark, with eye-catching purples in the film’s most gruelling scenes and a background of deep greens as Yana plays dead on the forest floor for upwards of five minutes. The visual austerity is further enhanced by a soundtrack that occasionally smothers dialogue in the white noise of rushing water, flames or the intriguingly abstract score by Nicolás Jaar. The visual compositions may well draw comparisons with Chantal Akerman, Michael Haneke or Carlos Reygadas (he’s executive producer) but Georgian director Kulumbegashvili has found her own mode.
In places, there is a darkly ironic slant on religious imagery: shafts of light entering the prayer hall while it’s ablaze, or a mock-nativity scene with an overwhelmed teenage mother. These theological hints are finally manifested in the film’s startling coda. There’s a balance and even a circularity to the film’s religious subtext, but it is far from neatly allegorical. As the children struggle to express the rules of divine judgment, Yana tests the limits of her own existence and moral certainties, her own punishment.
Sukhitashvili’s performance as Yana is all the more impressive for conveying the complexity of her crisis with limited movement or dialogue. Her deep ambivalence is masked by the reserve that is expected of her in her role with the church community. When she does speak her mind to her husband, he hardly listens, as he will later refuse to believe her on a crucial point. Her enforced decorum is reflected in the film’s rigorous aesthetic, its sparse dialogue and recurring stillness. In contemplating the horror of a subservient life, Kulumbegashvili has created a quite extraordinarily compelling film.
“I wanted to make a film about a supporting character”: Dea Kulumbegashvili on her enigmatic Beginning
Beginning, an enigmatic portrait of a young Georgian woman who is suffering an existential crisis, is by turns mysterious, shocking and icily reserved. Director Dea Kulumbegashvili talks to Jonathan Romney about religion, violence and ecstatic cinema.
By Jonathan Romney
Sight & Sound June 2021
In our current issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre. Read if you dare! Plus the history of ‘video nasties’, Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and vintage Jack Nicholson. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy