Beginning opens with one of the Bible’s most well-known stories; that of Abraham and his son. As Jehovah’s Witness minister David (Rati Oneli) retells of how God demanded unfaltering faith from Abraham by asking him to murder his own child, he further unpacks by asking his congregation two questions: “What is the moral of the story?” and “How should a true Christian behave in everyday life?” No immediate answers are provided, because, without warning, a Molotov cocktail is hurled into the crowd of the Kingdom Hall through the window, igniting fiery chaos. Through all the destruction and screams of horror, the congregants escape as quickly as possible, with a hushed, eerie calm descending 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, in fact, there’s an intensely ritualistic quality to Beginning, a remarkable debut feature from Georgian writer-director Dea Kulumbegashvili that unfolds with spare deliberation, pausing every so often to exquisitely twist the knife into its audience. That startling opener, like almost every sequence in the film, consists of a single, unblinking take that runs several minutes, shot by cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan with a fixed 35mm camera in the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio. It’s the kind of formalist technique that brings to mind the likes of Michael Haneke, another European director who likes to encase his characters within frames that seemingly work like meticulous booby-traps.
Yet as things slowly and disquietingly continue, Kulumbegashvili makes it more clear that she isn’t really laying a trap, but more exploring a prison. The lead 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’ll never become a man,” he says. But what exactly does it mean to be a man in this particular world? Beginning, which is Georgia’s submission in the Oscars’ international feature race this awards season, provides a bleak answer, sometimes obliquely and sometimes through Yana. A lengthy conversation with David reveals 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 a remote area near the Caucasus Mountains, where hostilities toward Jehovah’s Witnesses — a minority in a predominately Orthodox Christian country — seem especially pronounced.
Those hostilities will soon grow from the house of worship to 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, which we see in two quietly horrific sequences — the first haunting in its suggestiveness, the second tough to watch in its violence. Yet no matter if one feels uncomfortably intimate and the other cruelly detached, Yana, for all her rough experiences, exists as more than just a cipher to be brutalized. With lengthy pauses, few words and a piercing gaze, Sukhitashvili sketches in the emotional and psychological forms of a woman whose sufferings began long ago — and whose response to the detective’s malicious actions are suffused with ambivalence. As terrible as it is, it nonetheless represents a striking, even fascinating disruption of an endless cycle, both a collapse and extension of the patterns of patriarchal oppression that run Yana’s existence.
Kulumbegashvili gradually sketches in those patterns, though her most significant clues seemingly are cinematic ones. One of her executive producers here is Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas, whose own brand of human darkness and spiritually infused cinema — which often mixes the domestic and the natural world — has clear echoes here. Kulumbegashvili has also invoked the late Chantel Akerman, whose 1975 masterwork Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is Beginning‘s most significant touchstone: Both being pictures centered on women defined entirely by their domesticity, and propelled by a growing sense of dread that shows the unsustainability of such an environment. This is a director with both impeccable taste in influences and a gift to make them fully manifest. She also has something more, a curiosity about her characters and their world that defines itself through contradictions and oppositions. There is cruelty here but also tenderness, and hellish images that are followed by glimpses of earthly 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 the Biblical nature of it all, and perhaps even a quote or two from the big book: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” For all the film’s ambiguities, the exclamation point that is its final scene hits with such an unexpected nature that Kulumbegashvili’s blurring of beginnings and endings reaches a savage grace. Fierce in its stillness and bravura lingering, Beginning is a boldly evocative work of punishing isolation and alienation; ritualistic in rhythm but chilling in its bleak, ravaging cuts of emotion.
Beginning is available to stream on Mubi