Beginning

 

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A film as brilliant as it is obscure.

 
Beginning

 
I have rarely felt so divided in my responses to a film as I do in the case of Beginning, a first feature by the Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili. But I am at least clear as to where that division falls. Considered as a technical and aesthetic achievement, Beginning would be remarkable even if it were far from being a debut work. On the other hand, while it may involve a failure on my part, I have to say that I am baffled when trying to fathom what the story, written by the director and by one of its lead actors, Rati Oneli, is trying to say.

 

The opening scene is both brilliant and original. Using a boxed-in ratio of 1:33 and a static camera, we are shown the interior of a prayer house where the minister, David (Oneli's role), is about to give an address centred on the story of Abraham and of God's testing of his faith by requiring him to kill his own son, Isaac. Also present in the congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses is David's wife, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), who will turn out to be the film's central figure. Their young son, Giorgi (Saba Gogichaishvili), is among the children in attendance at what seems set to be a placid occasion (the film starts with the sound of prayers before we see any picture), but then a sudden brutal act erupts. We soon learn that it is not the first time that locals having a different faith have shown their hostility to this community. Nevertheless, it would seem that, although a crime has obviously been committed, the local police are prejudiced against any serious investigation into the identity of the people responsible.

 

Already one feels that one is dealing with a masterful and individual filmmaker. Music will only occasionally be brought in and this first scene, one restricted to dialogue and natural sounds, sets an everyday tone. Consequently, the sudden violence when it happens is made even more potent by being seen within the same static shot. But there's more to it than that contrast. In addition, the director makes telling use of depth of field: the ratio is such that the single viewpoint works perfectly both for events in the middle distance (David's speech takes place there) and for giving extra impact to anything that emerges close to the camera. While the ratio is maintained, the use of static shots is frequent but not exclusive thus giving weight by their rarity to those shots that involve panning.

 

By starting in this way, Beginning leads one to expect a detailed and realistic portrait of a religious order under the pressure of persecution, something not far removed from the Xavier Beauvois masterpiece Of Gods and Men (2010). However, the drama that develops here is for the most part much more internalised despite the fact that the early reference to Abraham and Isaac will come to carry extra weight. The choice of title seems rather strange, but it does link with an assertion by Yana that she is waiting for something to start or to end. Undoubtedly this is her story and, not unlike the forthcoming drama The World to Come, we are invited to see the central figure as a wife increasingly dissatisfied by her lot and aware that her husband treats her life as decidedly secondary to his (in this case Yana had formerly had a life of her own having been an actress but now feels that she has lost any sense of that). For much of the film, Yana is alone but for her son. This is due both to the fact that her husband is away dealing with the consequences of the violence we have witnessed and to her having made known to him that she wants time to herself.

 

However, where The World to Come develops clearly and consistently, Beginning does the opposite. A policeman, Alex (Kakha Kintsurashvili) turns up to question Yana about the incident. He claims to have come from Tbilisi, but those at the local police station deny having any knowledge of him. Given the religious context and the fact that this film will ultimately move away from naturalism altogether, it is just possible that Alex, like the titular figure in J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls, is not a human being but an emissary from beyond even if in this case he represents a tempter sent by God or the devil himself. On the other hand, his aggressive manner which turns explicitly sexual may mark him out as someone sent by those hostile to the Jehovah's Witnesses as part of a plan to discredit and threaten the minister and his wife.

 

I don't want to say too much about what follows, but the tale clearly brings together Yana's interior drama and such exterior matters as the hostility aroused and the question of the validity or otherwise of the life-style being taught (children being prepared for baptism feature and are seen to imbibe viewpoints that seem simplistic). If these two aspects don't cohere readily, even more complex is the plot development which marks out Yana as akin to the Lucretia famed in Roman history. There may be different interpretations of her situation as depicted here and it might well include one that equates her predicament with the view of the rape of Lucretia that was taken in Benjamin Britten's opera based on the classic tale. In any case regardless of that I found myself questioning the credibility of Yana's behaviour at certain points and even more was I thrown by the way in which the concluding scene of Beginning switches to a mode quite different from anything seen earlier.

 

Ia Sukhitashvili holds the screen with absolute confidence and is well supported. Furthermore, the individuality and technical accomplishment established in that opening scene remain a feature of the film right up to the close. Nevertheless, the longer the film went on the more difficult I found it to disentangle what the story was meant to convey so that by the close it had become a frustrating experience. I am left weighing that against the brilliance of the filmmaking and it is only fair to add that Beginning carried off no less than three top awards at the 2020 San Sebastian International Film Festival.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Ia Sukhitashvili, Kakha Kintsurashvili, Rati Oneli, Saba Gogichaishvili.

 

Dir Dea Kulumbegashvili, Pro Ilan Amouyal, Rati Oneli, David Zerat and Paul Rozenberg, Screenplay Dea Kulumbegashvili and Rati Oneli, Ph Arseni Khachaturan, Pro Des Guram Naurozashvili, Ed MatthieuTaponier, Music Nicolas Jaar.

 

First Picture/OFA/Zadig Films/Georgian National Film Centre-MUBI.
125 mins. Georgia/France. 2020. Rel: 29 January 2021. Available on MUBI. No Cert.