'Beginning': Film Review | San Sebastian 2020

Wild Bunch

Ia Sukhitashvili in 'Beginning'

A filmmaker's auspicious start.

In her debut feature, Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili zeros in on a despondent woman's emotional isolation within a community of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Early in the Georgian feature Beginning, when the central character's husband is dealing with a crisis in the religious community he leads, she confesses her own urgent predicament. "It's as if I were waiting for something to start," Yana tells him. "Or to end." The question of which of those two eventualities she's seeking, or if, for her, they're one and the same, is the slow-burning engine of this self-assured drama.

With its fixed camera and long takes, as well as its interest in matters of marriage and faith, Beginning calls to mind the films of Carlos Reygadas — who, it turns out, serves as an executive producer. But as bleak as Yana's story is, the movie isn't as punishing as the Mexican auteur's most indulgent work can be. The measured aesthetics of this first feature by director Dea Kulumbegashvili — what some will appreciate as rigor and less patient viewers will find exasperating — are informed by a profound sympathy. The filmmaker's concern with the domestic spaces and seemingly empty private moments of a woman's life feels less attuned to the films of Reygadas than to those of Chantal Akerman, in particular her landmark 1975 feature, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. 

Competing at the San Sebastian Film Festival (and also a selection at Cannes, TIFF, the New York fest and Busan), Beginning marks an auspicious bow for a new art house talent.

At the center of nearly every scene is the compelling Ia Sukhitashvili (whose credits include Mohsen Makhmalbaf's The President) as Yana, the discontented wife of David (Rati Oneli, who wrote the screenplay with the helmer) and mother of Giorgi (Saba Gogichaishvili). Yana's pain can be luminously transparent or alarmingly opaque, and Sukhitashvili's performance is a restrained study in desolation and unraveling.

Early in the story, and with openhearted directness, the character tries to put words to her suffering, only to be met with her husband's self-absorbed agenda. The prayer house where he leads sermons for a small congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses has just been firebombed. From that opening sequence of violence and communal calamity — all the more striking for being shot from a cool distance — the film shifts to matters of private negotiations in Yana and David's bedroom. His priorities are to rebuild the meeting hall and assure that his career timeline is still on track. She's at loose ends. They listen to each other, to a point.

Yana can supply the pill for David's headache, but she refuses to make the trip with him to see the group's elders. A former actor, she longs for time alone, as if to save herself from fading away. As a member of an insular religious minority, she feels ostracized in their remote town, not to mention targeted by extremists. Beyond that, as a good wife she feels erased. "Life goes by," she says, "as if I weren't there." To which her husband replies, in the perfect key of tone-deaf, "Let's find you a job."

The week of David's absence is marked by a series of increasingly disturbing events, beginning with a visit from a detective from Tbilisi, whose name, Alex, we'll learn very late in the drama. Played by Kakha Kintsurashvili with an unnerving strut, he pivots from improper requests regarding the bombing case to outright psychological invasions. "Don't pretend you're a frigid religious fanatic," he says. As repulsed as Yana is, Alex's words also awaken something in her that David's can't even touch. Is this the therapy David suggested she might need? Alex is id and monster, the embodiment of intolerance, misogyny, institutional power. As Yana grows less and less anchored to the day-to-day, he's the punishment she believes she needs. Ultimately the film asks, in a way that will madden some viewers and captivate others, whether he even leaves a trace.

The camerawork by Arseni Khachaturan (who also lensed this year's Aviva), with its composed, almost square (1:33 aspect ratio) frames, heightens the tension, and the blurring, between the physical world and the liminal. Enhanced by editor Matthieu Taponier's exacting cuts, the precise framing isolates characters, Yana in particular, drawing us into her silence — and sometimes isolating us in our judgment. Slow pans (and, in one chilling instance, an off-center close-up) bring characters together, but the connection isn't always reliable. The studied visuals at times imbue the action with the eerie sense of an unseen watcher, as in Michael Haneke's Caché, but with a very different sensibility and intention.

There's the beauty of nature too. (The film was shot in a small town at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains, near Azerbaijan.) On trips to town with her son, as well as on solo excursions, Yana is drawn to a park that opens into a wild, wooded area with a free-flowing stream. It's encouraging to see her seeking a place brimming with life, but nothing is that simple for the anguished wife and mother. At the film's midpoint, Kulumbegashvili gives us a scene whose seven-plus minutes consist almost entirely of a shot of her protagonist lying still, eyes closed, against a painterly tapestry of leaves, some of them green and thriving, some of them dead. The only sound is birdsong, and halfway through the sequence it fades away, pulling us deeper into Yana's inscrutable silence. For the first time in the film, she looks almost contented, and you might hope that she's imagining a new life for herself. But Giorgi's distress intrudes on the quiet and shatters any hope.

Late in the film, Yana dons a teal dress that wouldn't be out of place on a commander's wife in Gilead. In this story of obedience and sacrifice, which opens with David's (disrupted by conflagration) sermon on Abraham and Isaac, Yana's righteous devotion and whispered prayers do nothing to dispel the painful truth. She knows she has traded her autonomy to live in a subculture where women are subservient to men. Seeking some sort of solace after a devastating turn of events, she visits her mother, who recalls her own difficult marriage and how, even as an infant, Yana was more comfortable outdoors than within the confines of a controlling man's house.

In this anatomy of sorrow, Yana's sadness shapes what we see. The second church scene in Beginning is a celebration, and at key moments she's the watcher, outside the frame, alone in her misery and guilt. On the drive home, she and David have a frank conversation about their marriage. We hear their voices while the camera holds the dark, wet view through the windshield. The wipers move back and forth tirelessly, but they can't stop the rain.

Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival
Production companies: First Picture, Office of Film Architecture, Zadig Films, GA Films, Paradoxal
Cast: Ia Sukhitashvili, Rati Oneli, Kakha Kintsurashvili, Saba Gogichaishvili
Director: Dea Kulumbegashvili
Screenwriters: Dea Kulumbegashvili, Rati Oneli
Producers: Ilan Amouyal, David Zerat, Rati Oneli, Paul Rozenberg
Executive producers: Carlos Reygadas, Gaetan Rousseau
Co-producers: Steven Darty, Adrien Dassault
Director of photography: Arseni Khachaturan
Production designer: Guram Navrozashvili
Costume designer: Ketevan Kalandadze
Editor: Matthieu Taponier
Music: Nicolas Jaar
Sound: Séverin Favriau, Tengo Mandzulashvili, Stéphane Thiebaud, Emeline Aldeguer
Casting director: Leli Miminoshvili
Sales: Wild Bunch International

In Georgian
125 minutes