In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. In Beginning, the debut feature from Georgian filmmaker Dea Kulumbegashvili, she creates an Earth that becomes a hell of a devastating account of a woman’s assault at the a dangerously patriarchal and violent community.
The film begins with a scene of communal terror in a remote village outside of Tbilisi, Georgia, as a Jehovah’s Witness missionary and religious leader, David (co-writer Rati Oneli), addresses his congregation and delivers a sermon about Abraham. We watch a minutes-long long shot filmed from the back of the prayer house as he maintains his grip on his audience. Suddenly, a Molotov cocktail is launched into the scene from the offscreen abyss and a fire erupts, leaving everyone to scramble to stamp out the flames as David tries to keep them calm. This jarring, inexplicable violence sets the tone for what is to come: we are never sure what terrors might suddenly erupt within the walls of spaces once deemed safe and holy, or within the bounds of the film frame.
While David is determined to rebuild and rise from the ashes, his wife Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili) is less certain. Together they have a young son George (Saba Gogichaishvili) and seem determined to settle in, but Yana loses herself in the far-removed religious society, where “life goes by as if I weren’t there.” Yana seeks to break free, feeling a desperate spiritual impulse to flee the community and transcend its subjugation.
Long takes force us to bear witness to scenes of striking beauty, along with scenes of biting suffering. Yana is forced into domestic servitude by a chauvinistic husband, and soon a detective (Kakha Kintsurashvili) further invades her physical sanctity and sexually assaults her.
Cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan captures the town nestled amid the Caucuses with arresting beauty, the sky and the grass seem to shimmer in the hazy halo of twilight. A baptism is shot from overhead as the clouded water glistens, and even the aftermath of arson is framed in a gorgeous long shot nestling the church building in the mountains against a watercolor-like sky. The congregants sit in the fields as orange flames leap, and we cut to the same view at dusk, as the fire burns on, the smoke billowing far beyond where the eye can see.
Kulumbegashvili’s aesthetic approach is often understated, filming in durational long takes reminiscent of Michael Haneke. The film uses the boundaries of the frame to underscore the protagonist’s entrapment and restrict her movement. In the haunting first scene the detective, the camera stays on Yana, even as the predatory detective moves offscreen and pesters her with questions about her sex life with her husband. She does not move from her seat as she is goaded into using explicit language to refer to what she does and what she likes in her intimate moments, and only after what seems like an excruciatingly long time does the camera slowly pan and allow her to move away. Yet even there, she is offered no escape. Kulumbegashvili uses both physical distance and visceral closeness to depict attacks, and Yana has nowhere to run.
This exquisitely austere approach can at times be overly distanced and clinical, perhaps creating too much detachment from the sheer horror of what Yana is forced to endure, but Sukhitashvili’s performance is nothing short of staggering.
Even if some scenes are almost unbearable in length and the score from Nicholas Jaar is exceedingly minimalist, our protagonist barely gets a chance to breathe as she is hammered with relentlessly punishing trials. At one point, Yana confesses, “It’s as if I’m waiting for something to start, or to end,” and she seems always on the precipice of revelation or salvation. Whether divine intervention may come, and whether Yana might be able to reawaken or act upon her own desires, is never certain. Yana’s agency is constantly being granted then torn away, and even getting out of her community offers no respite after she is ostracized and cast out.
If it was not already clear, this film is an extremely tough watch, with bleakness and brutality. It often is frustratingly opaque, still and silent, offering little chance for catharsis. Yet even if the camera and Yana herself almost never move, Kulumbegashvili retains a female focus and profound empathy to her indescribable anguish. A harrowing revelation of a film, Beginning leaves us with ample spiritual uncertainty for its characters, but is undoubtedly the start of something major from Dea Kulumbegashvili.