NYFF 2020 Review: Religious Brutality and Stagnation in 'Beginning'
by Michael Frank
October 7, 2020
The first shot of Georgian filmmaker Dea Kulumbegashvili's debut feature Beginning settles into the back of a small chapel. Patrons waft in and sit on either side of the aisle, with men taking up the majority of the right side, and women and children on the left of the frame. The pastor, or church leader, begins talking about Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, and the sacrifices we all must make in reverence to God. The back door opens and an unseen person throws in a Molotov cocktail of sorts, lighting the back of the chapel on fire, barricading the doors so the churchgoers can't escape. The screams and general panic sets in, though the camera remains unflinched, an objective observer staying just far enough away from the action.
In Dea Kulumbegashvili's Beginning, the camera rarely moves. It's a fly sitting in on intimate conversations, paralyzed by the contents of its 1.33:1 aspect ratio, a way of shooting in the past, largely forgotten and thrown aside by The Academy standards. Beginning becomes as much about what's in the frame as what's lurking right outside of the almost-square video, with characters having constant conversations with those unseen but still heard. Kulumbegashvili's first film follows Yana (played by Ia Sukhitashvili), a mother to a young son, and a wife to a leader of a local, remote Jehovah's Witness community. Her acceptance to this life is an immediate point of contention with her husband, as they speak early in the film. He's asking her why she can't be a normal person. And all of her responses are heartbreaking. "Life goes by as if I weren't there," she explains. His solution: get her a job. It's the first of many instances of Yana's powerlessness in this community, in this family, and in this marriage.
The picture itself never fails to be gorgeous and carefully calculated, though there's a distinct coldness and distance in the long takes. The camera, much like the community, will not intervene when Yana's sense of powerlessness turns into physical and sexual abuse. Kulumbegashvili reminds you of Yana's loneliness in every shot, as she speaks to family, villains, and children just off-screen. It's unsettling how alone she can be, and tragic how little her husband understands of her needs, her wants, her pains, and her losses. During one particularly horrific scene in the drama, we can see Yana, but we can't hear her screams because of the rushing river. The horror is in the frame, but she's soundless, wordless, and unprotected.
Sukhitashvili deserves credit for conveying a spectrum of emotion, while making an effort to be the wife and mother she's expected to be. Throughout the film, Sukhitashvili fills the corners of the screen, being the only person the audience can see. Her exhaustion is apparent, but she wears a fragile mask to keep her son happy and her husband pleased. In one scene, Yana lays in the grass in the woods for minutes, with the only sound being birds up above. She closes her eyes, escaping current pressure and breathing through the walls of frustration, sadness, and anger that build around her during the 130-minute film.
Beginning highlights the plight of women in religious communities through the scope of a lonely woman desperate for a different life, but (somewhat) loyal to the one she's chosen. It's an unjustified situation filled with those who talk of justness and virtue. Kulumbegashvili crafts one of the best debut films of the year with a hyper-specific story, likely akin to thousands of silent accounts over the centuries. A story of internal persecution and even deeper turmoil, Beginning represents far more than religious bindings, pushing its lead, and those around her, to the brink of despair, and prompting her to take any semblance of control. It's more than just a gorgeous film; it's a necessary one.
Michael's NYFF 2020 Rating: 4 out of 5
Follow Michael on Twitter - @peachfuzzcritic