Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 New York Film Festival. MUBI will start streaming the film on Friday, January 29.
In a modern world that wants to think of itself in widescreen, the squarish 1:33 aspect ratio and the similarly claustrophobic “Academy ratio” have been somewhat ostracized as outliers — relegated to the province of arthouse filmmakers who primarily use them to express confinement of some kind (“Fish Tank,” “First Reformed,” and “Mommy” represent just a small handful of recent examples). Dea Kulumbegashvili’s luminously powerful “Beginning” was shot in 1:33 to much the same effect, but this auspicious debut has a more violent and involved relationship with its framing than most of its contemporaries.
From the horrifying sting of its first shot to the becalming ethereality of its longest take, Kulumbegashvili’s film doesn’t simply trap its heroine in a home she longs to escape, it also uses the severe narrowness of these images to isolate her from other people, to articulate the desires she’s smothered in the name of maternal servitude, and to attack her from just beyond the limits of what she’s able to see. In “Beginning,” the borders of the frame aren’t just the iron bars of a jail cell, they’re also the garden walls of Eden, the tempting hiss of the snake, and the angel of the lord who interrupted Abraham from killing his son.
After the jolt of its opening scene, it’s impossible to watch “Beginning” without being as wary of what’s outside the frame as you are concerned for the woman inside it. And when it becomes clear that Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili) is possessed with a biblical conviction to break free of its borders and flee the patriarchal subjugation of the Jehovah’s Witness community where she lives with the local religious leader (co-writer Rati Oneli plays Yana’s husband David) and their pre-teen son George (Saba Gogichaishvili), you understand what she’s hoping to find on the other side with a palpably spiritual intensity.
The journey there is long and troubling and so resistant to any prescriptive kind of psychology that the film gets lost in the very space that its heroine is struggling to navigate — the space between motherhood and martyrdom — but the grace of Kulumbegashvili’s storytelling allows for a measure of grace within her story, as “Beginning” resolves with a moment of transcendence worthy of comparison to the ending of Carlos Reygadas’ “Silent Light.”
It’s far from the only sequence that helps to explain why Reygadas signed on as an executive producer (cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan lenses the bucolic Caucasian town of Lagodekhi in a periwinkle twilight that screams “Post Tenebras Lux”), but “Beginning” is more directly indebted to the religious austerity of Michael Haneke and the domestic airlessness of “Jeanne Dielman.” Most scenes unfold without cuts or camera movement, as Kulumbegashvili establishes the orthodoxy of her grammar in a five-minute opening shot that finds David welcoming his congregation to their prayer house and delivering a sermon about a particular Bible story before a Molotov cocktail is hurled into the church from somewhere off-camera.
Nobody dies — it seems the Jehovah’s Witnesses are rather used to attacks from Christian extremists — and David is committed to rebuilding. Yana, however, was already itching to relocate somewhere closer to civilization (and perhaps more secular), and she recognizes her husband’s resolve as proof that he’ll never live up to the promise he made her of leaving one day. That disconnect is eventually hashed out in the closest thing this movie has to a scene of cards-on-the-table exposition, but everything we need to know can be gleaned from an extraordinary focus rack that articulates the difference in perspective between husband and wife.
By the time Yana and David have a hushed conversation in the dark of their home that night — she insisting that she no longer recognizes herself in the mirror and that her “life goes by as if I weren’t there,” to which he destructively replies “You knew you couldn’t be an actress and my wife at the same time” — we can already detail the abusive dynamic at work. Yana once hoped that starting a family with the man she loved would be fulfilling even if she didn’t share his faith, but she didn’t entirely understand the role she was agreeing to play, or how inflexible David would be about her character.
Her part in this patriarchal system is to provide, and not to want; it’s rare to hear (or read) a line of dialogue as loaded with double-meaning as when David barks “can’t you act like a normal person and just tell me what you want?” Yana can’t say what she wants unless she acts like a normal person, but she can’t act like a normal person unless she knows what she wants, and her desires aren’t as simple as running away; they’re vague and distant in a way that Kulumbegashvili would rather hint at than explore, as “Beginning” circles the nebulousness of its heroine’s needs without giving them quite enough shape for us to put together the jigsaw puzzle that Yana leaves behind.
Some of the pieces are clear-cut, others are sordid and/or contradictory, while Sukhitashvili’s implosive performance (evocative of Delphine Seyrig’s embodiment of Dielman) grounds them all with a kind of semi-religious gravity. Most explicit are the encounters between Yana and a predatory man who claims to be a detective from the big city (Kakha Kintsurashvili). The detective sexually assaults Yana in the home she maintains for chauvinistic husband, and later — in a rape sequence that’s all the more horrifying for its divine serenity and detachment — poisons another of the spaces that she holds sacred.
And yet Kulumbegashvili frames these attacks in a way that lines them with a sense of, how to put this delicately, “masochistic self-discovery.” The director has said that Yana is “punishing herself for wanting something she is afraid to name,” but the film’s Rorschach-like approach begs you to provide your own reasons. Perhaps, in her own agnostic way, Yana is making herself vulnerable in the hopes that God might recognize her sacrifice and stay the detective’s hand. Or perhaps her desire for degradation is part of a perverse attempt to break free from the strictures of her situation. Personally, I didn’t pick up on even the slightest hint of consent, even if it’s hard to overlook the increasing subjectivity that accompanies the film’s supernatural tinge. However you slice it, Yana’s rape inevitably serves to reaffirm her powerlessness. She’ll need to find another way out, and we’ll need to find a way to follow her logic as she moves beyond the limits of these boxed-in frames.
“Something’s wrong with me,” Yana says in that early conversation with David. “It’s as if I’m waiting for something to start, or to end.” Kulumbegashvili’s impressive debut would seem to answer that uncertainty with its title, but the film’s ambiguous nature — however frustrating it can be at times — allows for the exclamation point of its final scene to hit with unexpected force. It can be hard to divine much of a difference between beginnings and endings, but there’s no mistaking the savage grace with which Kulumbegashvili blurs them together until they’re one and the same. In their own (very different) ways, both Yana and Kulumbegashvili ultimately express the limitlessness of their potential.
“Beginning” screened virtually as part of the 2020 New York Film Festival.