NYFF REVIEW: ‘Beginning’ (2020) is a Quietly Harrowing Evocation of Self-Realization

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Beginning is an assured feature debut with an unfortunately opaque focus on female trauma.”

“It’s as if I’m waiting for something to start. Or end.”

This early admission by Beginning’s central character Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili) to her husband David (co-writer Rati Oneli) lingers over the rest of Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili’s assured, unsettling feature debut. Although the film’s title initially seems to give away the answer to her question, the narrative itself actively resists providing audiences with any easy answers about our heroine’s fraught, ongoing journey of self-realization. 

Yana is first introduced from a distance, as David delivers a sermon to the isolated Jehovah’s Witness community to which the couple and their young son Giorgi belong. It’s easy to be lulled into a sense of security as he quizzes the congregation on the story of Abraham and Isaac in its stagnant opening take, which depicts a scene with which anyone who’s sat through a religious service or even a lecture will be familiar.

Suddenly the church’s door opens and a man’s arm enters the frame. But it’s not a fellow worshipper — it’s an outsider, who proceeds to throw a Molotov cocktail that sends the building up in flames. Just like that, Yana’s life becomes plagued by unseen threats and resentments before we even see her face.

After the attack — which seems to be a fairly regular occurrence on behalf of Christian extremists — local religious leader David is eager to rebuild the church as soon as possible, but Yana itches to move somewhere closer to ordinary (perhaps secular) civilization. We later learn that she previously had plans to become an actress, and was under the impression that marrying David would not fully envelope her in the demands of maternal servitude and religion as fully as it has.

When she insists that she no longer recognizes herself in the mirror, and that “life goes by as if I weren’t there,” he sharply replies, “You knew you couldn’t be an actress and my wife at the same time.” The film is never didactic about the misogyny that permeates throughout, but David’s casual dismissal of his wife’s point of view sets the scene well enough on his own. For instance, when he resolves to leave town for a week in order to secure funding for the new church, he finishes the conversation by simply telling her, “I’ll take care of it.”

Left alone with Giorgi, Yana struggles to pinpoint what exactly she hopes to find on the other side of the suppressive life she’s lived thus far. Beginning is shot in a squarish 1:33 aspect ratio indicative of not only Yana’s patriarchal confinement, but her alienation. While the largely plotless movie is ostensibly naturalistic, following her as she teaches a school class, takes her son to the park, and — in an obvious reference to Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles — peels cucumbers in the kitchen, Kulumbegashvil carefully frames her lonely everyday life in a way that intentionally stirs audience concern for what’s lurking just outside of the boxy screen (and what’s haunting the woman within it).

In David’s absence, Yana is soon forced to endure increasingly disturbing encounters with a strange man known only as “Detective” (Kakha Kintsurashvili), who claims to be looking into the recent bombing but is much more interested in making violent sexual advances towards her. At one point it’s suggested that the man may not be working with the police and may even be one of the Christian extremists himself, but his real identity is ultimately besides the point — if Yana is attempting to find herself on the other side of suppression as a lone woman, he’s a frightening amalgamation of the systems that strive to keep her from doing so.

It’s also worth a warning that a little over halfway through the film, a brutally long rape scene unfolds in real time — the camera lingers from several yards away like a frozen bystander. Although the atrocities of the attack itself are muffled by the gentle gurgling of a nearby river and the shadowy haze of nighttime, it remains a massively triggering sequence that never feels wholly justified despite the magical realism of Beginning’s cathartic final shot.

While it’s admirable that Kulumbegashvili is subtle in her depiction of Yana’s growth and trauma, the film often becomes too opaque, making it difficult to ever piece together emotional context for what exactly the central character needs and desires beyond the austere boundaries that her own society places upon her. For her part, Sukhitashvili plays Yana with a guarded intensity that makes the character feel much more dimensional, no matter how powerless she may be.

At one point, a character snaps at the heroine, “For once, act like a normal person and tell me what you want!” The best hint at what that is comes when, as a partial prank on her son, Yana lies entirely still in the grass, for once able to exist peacefully by and for herself. The only indications that time has passed throughout the scene are the dapples of sunlight that dance on her cheeks and the occasional rustling of the leaves on which she rests her head. They’re a mix of dead and freshly fallen ones, quietly supporting the director’s explorations of how beginnings and endings often bleed into one another in an ongoing cycle. If only Beginning didn’t overly embrace distinctly female suffering to prove it to us.

Dir: Dea Kulumbegashvili

Prod: Ilan Amouyal, Rati Oneli, David Zerat

Cast:  Kakha Kintsurashvili, Rati Oneli, Ia Sukhitashvili

Header image courtesy of NYFF