July 23, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘Beginning’ review: Georgia’s beautifully bleak Oscar entry

In the beginning of “Beginning” is the Word: a well-known Bible story, retold and unpacked during an afternoon meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “What is the moral of this story?” asks the minister, David (Rati Oneli), before later adding, “How should a true Christian behave in everyday life?” No answer is immediately forthcoming: Without warning, a Molotov cocktail is hurled into the crowded Kingdom Hall, igniting a tableau of fiery (and, it seems, not unprecedented) chaos. Images of destruction and screams of horror aside, the congregants escape as quickly as possible, and a hushed, eerie calm descends on the scenes that follow. For this religious community, you suspect, even violent persecution has become just one more of life’s soul-crushing rituals.

And there is an intensely ritualistic quality to “Beginning,” a remarkable — and remarkably bleak — debut feature from the writer-director Dea Kulumbegashvili that unfolds with spare, mock-ceremonial deliberation, pausing every so often for an exquisite twist of the knife. That startling opener, like almost every sequence in the film, consists of a single, unblinking take that runs several minutes, shot by the cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan with a fixed camera in a nearly square 1.33:1 aspect ratio. It’s the kind of formalist technique that regular patrons of European auteur cinema will instinctively recognize, especially admirers of Michael Haneke (“Amour”), an Austrian director who likes to encase his characters in meticulously booby-trapped frames.

But, as she makes slowly and disquietingly clear, Kulumbegashvili isn’t really laying a trap; she’s exploring a prison. The chief inmate on display is a woman named Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), though she is mainly known in this remote, insular community as the preacher’s wife. For lengthy stretches, the details of her confinement — we see her preparing meals and teaching a class of young students — are the object of the movie’s precise, unwavering gaze. We also see the natural depth of her affection for her young son, Giorgi (Saba Gogichaishvili), which David finds indulgent: “If you go on like this,” he says, “he’ll never become a man.”

A still from the movie “Beginning.”

(MUBI)

But what does it mean to be a man in this particular world? “Beginning,” which will represent Georgia in the Oscars’ international feature race, provides a none-too-flattering answer, sometimes obliquely and sometimes through Yana. A lengthy conversation with David exhumes a lot of marital backstory: the acting career she abandoned to support the family, the numerous times he’s uprooted them to pursue his calling as a preacher. Their latest temporary home is this remote outpost near the Caucasus Mountains, where hostilities toward Jehovah’s Witnesses — a minority in a predominantly Orthodox Christian country — seem especially pronounced.

Those hostilities, having already erupted at a house of worship, will soon arrive at the family’s actual home, in the form of a nameless detective (Kakha Kintsurashvili) who claims to be investigating the attack. But the true focus of his scrutiny turns out to be Yana herself, as we see in two quietly horrific sequences — the first one mesmerizing in its insinuations, the second one almost unwatchable in its violence. That latter sequence, set at night against an incongruously beautiful patch of wilderness, is framed from a vantage that seems at once concentrated and cruelly detached. Even within the context of this carefully constructed fiction, you may well wonder which is the more ethical response, to keep watching or to look away.

But Yana, for all the degradation she experiences, fortunately exists as more than just a cipher to be brutalized. With lengthy pauses, few words and a piercingly eloquent gaze, Sukhitashvili sketches in the emotional and psychological contours of a woman whose sufferings began long ago — and whose response to the detective’s even more maliciously targeted assault is tinged with ambivalence. As terrible as it is, it nonetheless represents a striking, even fascinating disruption of an endless cycle, an extension — but also a breach — of the patterns of patriarchal oppression that have come to dominate Yana’s existence.

Saba Gogichaishvili and Ia Sukhitashvili in the movie "Beginning."

Saba Gogichaishvili and Ia Sukhitashvili in the movie “Beginning.”

(MUBI)

Kulumbegashvili gradually sketches in those patterns — a lonely visit Yana pays to her mother and younger sister proves especially illuminating — though her most significant clues are explicitly cinematic ones. One of her executive producers here is the Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas (“Silent Light”), whose own brand of spiritually inflected cinema, often setting domestic tension against the beauty of the natural world, has clear echoes here. Kulumbegashvili has also invoked the late Chantal Akerman, whose 1975 masterwork, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” is “Beginning’s” most significant touchstone: another picture centered on a woman defined entirely by her domesticity, and propelled by a mounting sense of dread as it becomes apparent that none of this is, or should be, sustainable.

This is a director, in other words, with impeccable taste in influences and a gift for making those influences manifest. She also has something more, a curiosity about her characters and their world that defines itself through contrasts and oppositions. There is cruelty here but also tenderness, and hellish images that are followed by glimpses of a terrestrial paradise. By the end of “Beginning,” there is the unmistakable sense that Yana’s journey has come full circle: You’ll likely flash back on that Bible story from the outset, and perhaps also on some earlier words from Genesis: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” God, so often invoked in this story but otherwise seemingly absent, may work in more mysterious ways than even his most fervent witnesses can imagine.

‘Beginning’

In Georgian with English subtitles

Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

Playing: Available Jan. 29 on MUBI