Almost the most important thing to see in a debut feature is a filmmaker’s confidence beyond the material. Beginning offers that in spades, despite its flaws. Bookended by extraordinary shots, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s feature exerts total poise as it sets out an audacious take on religion and womanhood under pressure.
The film centres on Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), the wife of religious leader David (Rati Oneli) in a rural Georgian community of Jehovah’s Witnesses. At the beginning of the film their place of worship is firebombed by an unseen attacker, and David complains officially to local police. As the complaint gets nowhere and Yana is assaulted by someone who claims to be a detective, the silent pressures begin to take their toll on the family unit.
The feeling that the film achieves so distinctly is of a close-knit world being destabilised from the outside. A boxy 1.33:1 ratio is utilised with great effect, both intimate and isolating, and the opening shot is a marvel—the camera remains stationary at the back of the prayer hall as it slowly fills and a sermon begins. Suddenly, the door at the left edge of the frame opens and a Molotov cocktail is thrown in, with no warning. The camera never moves or cuts, showing the utter panic of a world disturbed, and the panic that sets in comes from this lack of artistic interference.
This visual expressiveness is admirable; as well as a refusal to cut, the frame’s porousness is such that characters freely wander out, or even carry on conversations with someone out of the camera’s view. The result of such a technique is that a sudden entrance like the opening attack, or a man’s advances into Yana’s apartment, feel even more threatening as the film offers no way out.
As previously alluded to, the film does include scenes of sexual assault that are almost unwatchable in their unflinching oppressiveness. However, these do not feel unnecessary as Kulumbegashvili’s gaze is always compassionate rather than exploitative, conjuring its tone without gratuitous imagery. While a discussion could be had about how the film draws parallels between the individual experiences of the protagonist and the wider attacks on the community, the moments of sympathy counter any doubts about taste. There is a scene where Yana is on public transport and the camera is trained on her hair; a stray hand encroaching on the back of her seat becomes a violation, in just one of the sequences when the almost square frame becomes the tightest of boundaries.
There is a rarefied arthouse tradition of this sort of slow cinema, using the camera as an observing eye whose viewpoint never intrudes on the action: what is obscured and cut away from becomes as meaningful as what is shown. However, it would be harsh to call the director’s style derivative; her holding on the hardest moments to watch can recall Haneke and there is a touch of Ozu in the framing of domestic scenes, but the control she exerts over the material lifts it beyond pastiche.
That being said, it is the film’s need to reach a conclusion in the drama which lets it down in the end. A couple of narrative beats felt out of place with the tone of the rest of the film and perhaps shed a slightly queasy lens of shock onto some of the film’s most harrowing moments: a shame as up until that point, the film had been gripping beyond its slow pace.
The sequences with no concession to narrative drive are in fact the most successful in the film. One amazing moment is a static shot from above as Yana lies down on the ground in a glade, after the most horrific ordeal; her son is by her side and tries to rouse her as she plays dead, and eventually he becomes distracted and leaves. All the while, the camera remains trained on her face and torso as all sound drops out and the film becomes lost in the stinging silence of the moment. Another is the final image, which I shall not reveal as the subtle use of CG visuals are genuinely jaw-dropping—it appears to suggest a retributive balancing of order on a scale beyond our lifespan, for all its help to the present situation of the protagonist.
Beginning aims very high with audaciously emotive material and an obviously elevated style. Ultimately it never quite coheres, but the film can be recommended for some stunning elongated shots and a terrifically engaging central performance.
Beginning is currently showing on MUBI.
Words by Max King
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