Beginning (Dea Kulumbegashvili, Georgia/France)

By Lawrence Garcia

Beginning opens with a sermon on the Old Testament tale of Abraham and Isaac, delivered to a Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Georgia’s predominantly Orthodox Christian Caucasus region. Just as the preacher, David (Rati Oneli), starts to expound on its implications regarding belief, the Kingdom Hall is firebombed by unseen attackers, transforming the becalmed sanctuary into a hellish crucible. Taken together with the scene’s violent shift and director Dea Kulumbegashvili’s already evident fixed-frame aesthetic, this invocation of Abraham’s radical leap of faith, which spans the breach between murder and sacrifice, might seem to presage an exploration of religious experience, or a sociocultural study of religious prejudice. But in Kulumbegashvili’s consummately composed feature debut, faith isn’t so much the central subject as it is, well, a beginning—the starting point for a film of largely immobile frames, bold narrative leaps, and disorienting visual ruptures, where the matter of who might be bearing witness to all this soon becomes something of a foundational question.

Kulumbegashvili’s primary, if tenuous, point of reference is David’s wife Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), a former actress who, as the film opens, is dutifully performing her expected role in the religious community. But as her justifiable discontent with her lot—mainly rooted in her yearning to leave this remote region, which David resolutely refuses to do—becomes ever more evident, the outward stability of this tradition-bound environment starts to give way.The camera takes Yana’s seated perspective as she attempts to prepare a group of children, including her son Giorgi (Saba Gogichaishvil), for their baptism, but the class soon collapses into unruly laughter. Earlier, struggling to convey her feelings of dislocation, she tells her husband, “I look into the mirror and a stranger looks back.” David’s dismissive non-response conveys all one needs to know about their relationship’s balance of power, but as if to compensate, the film’s visual vernacular expands to incorporate Yana’s dissociative drift. Slowly, her world comes apart.

The major catalyst for this occurs when a man (Kakha Kintsurashvili)—whom we had earlier glimpsed in the aftermath of the firebombing, and who is now revealed to be a police detective—visits Yana at home while David is away. After instructing her, in so many words, to convince her husband to drop the arson case—which, despite clear security-camera footage of the perpetrators, is still unresolved—the cop forces her to engage in so many funny games, exploiting her position as both a woman and religious minority. The detective’s assorted assaults and humiliations being largely verbal, this ruthlessly protracted scene is one of queasily sustained stillness, incorporating just a single, decisive camera movement (only the second in the entire film): a pan from the petrified Yana, seated at the dinner table, to the intruder reclining comfortably on her living room sofa. 

This harrowing home invasion recalls the myriad violations of hearth and home in the work of Michael Haneke—a natural point of comparison given Kulumbegashvili’s eerily patient camera style and open admiration of the Austrian auteur. But ultimately, it is Carlos Reygadas (credited here as an executive producer) who serves as a more useful frame of reference, even though he and Kulumbegashvilinotablydiverge in visual style—the former most often trading on sensorial immersion and monumental materiality, while the latter’s images largely convey a measured distance and muted control. However, beyond the obvious parallels with Reygadas’ Silent Light (2007) in its portrait of a cloistered religious community, Beginning eventually reveals itself to possess something of the Mexican filmmaker’s incorrigibly prankish sensibility, a willingness to suddenly upend narrative expectations, tonal consistency, and even its own aesthetic unity. 

While Beginning does not, for the most part, approach the outrageousness of the diabolic nighttime visitation and self-decapitation in Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux (2012), it offers a comparable stylistic break at about its mid-point, during a bucolic jaunt between Yana and Giorgi that is all but detached from the story’s overall progression. From an overhead view of Yana resting, and then playing dead, on a patch of forest ground—the shot’s duration pushing its surface tranquility to the point of foreboding unease—Kulumbegashvili cuts to Giorgi, observing his mother from afar. The camera then pans from Giorgi, standing stock-still, to find Yana in the distance, still supine, but now with an indistinct figure lying next to her—one whom she addresses, and who responds, as Giorgi. Nothing is made of this sudden, discombobulating shift, and it is never referred to later in the film. But with this inexplicable perspectival rupture, Kulumbegashvili manages to unsettle both the trajectory of her narrative and her own seemingly well-established formal mechanics, which might otherwise slot neatly into a de rigueur film-festival aesthetic. 

In an interview with Filmmaker, Kulumbegashvili has spoken approvingly about Haneke in the context of a director’s “responsibility,” and this places a marked weight upon her employment, in Beginning, of distinctly Haneke-derived strategies, with their confrontational (if not shaming) stance toward the viewer and calm depictions of cruelty and horror. These are evident not only in her characters’ propensity for looking squarely into the camera, breaching (if not breaking) the fourth wall, but also in the film’s most troubling scene: Yana’s rape by the detective, shot at a distance that places the viewer in the position of a fatally indifferent passer-by. More questionably, the scenes that follow, which chronicle the fallout from this crime—especially a passage in which Yana visits her mother and sister, the latter of whom has recently become a mother herself—skew towards considerably less conceptualized forms of arthouse convention, wavering uneasily between rote psychological “development” (which the film had heretofore largely eschewed) and an almost fable-like tenor (conveyed primarily through a story told by Yana’s mother) that distances the narrative from its specific milieu of patriarchal and religious oppression. But even as Yana’s fraught situation becomes a kind of screw-tightening, huis clos scenario, Beginning notably departs from her sense of entrapment during a countryside drive towards the site of Giorgi’s baptism, where the camera’s movement becomes, in this film of tense fixity, the very embodiment of blissful release—although an altogether different sort of release follows soon thereafter.

The climactic scene of Beginning—a prolonged sequence of Yana peeling cucumbers in the kitchen, which leads to a shocking act of violence—has understandably drawn comparisons to Jeanne Dielman (1975). It is no minor difference, though, that the killing in the Akerman film carries a measure of inevitability and fulfillment, whereas that in Kulumbegashvili’s (which is not perpetrated against the target we might expect) instead enacts a transformation of what has preceded it. If Abraham’s sacrifice was premised on faith, Beginning asks whether such an act might possibly be redeemedin the absence of it. Speaking nominally to her husband, Yana unambiguously confirms her actions via direct-camera address, the frontal framing acting as a reminder of what it truly means to bear witness:to see others not merely as souls to be saved for the hereafter, but as persons to be acknowledged in all their present suffering and sorrow. It is a challenge, too, for Yana’s preacher husband and those like him, who, looking only to the eternal, have become unable to divine the difference.

There is no question that this final turn, like the other shock-and-awe stylistic coups Kulumbegashvili strategically deploys, flirts with sensationalism. Still, I find myself unable to dismiss a film that so resolutely interrogates its own methodologies, shaking up its dramatic, formal, and philosophical foundations in the process. For its coda, Beginning reserves one final enigma (call it a leap of faith), closing on a breathtaking image of disintegration—a figure in a parched, craggy landscape turning to stone, then crumbling to dust—that decimates any lingering interpretive certainties. Offering both damnation and renewal in a single shot, it forces us, finally, to examine the ground beneath our feet. Garcia Lawrence