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Isolating and spiritual, ‘Beginning’ makes for a rigid yet confident debut | NYFF 2020

Isolating and spiritual, ‘Beginning’ makes for a rigid yet confident debut | NYFF 2020

Isolating and spiritual, ‘Beginning’ makes for a rigid yet confident debut | NYFF 2020
September 30
17:26 2020

“Life goes by as if I weren’t there.”

Content warning: This film contains graphic sequences of sexual assault

Yana is the wife of a Jehovah’s Witnesses community leader whose life and desires become upended when a molotov cocktail is thrown into the community’s prayer house, burning it to the ground.

“Beginning” is a film of lingering. The characters linger on situations of past and present, the camera lingers on single shots often for extended moments in time to fully absorb either the character’s emotions in that moment, or the landscape of the provincial town and how it plays a part in the undoing of our central character, Yana, played ferociously by Ia Sukhitashvilli.

Within the dark confines of “Beginning’s” long, silent takes, it is only natural that we feel Yana’s longing to escape from her trapped life and the isolation that comes with it right alongside her. On top of Yana’s yearning, she’s also caught in an abusive, patriarchal relationship with her husband. From the film’s very first long take, we see Yana telling her husband how she does not feel like herself anymore which her husband responds in a dismissive manner, reminding her she can’t “be an actress and my wife at the same time.” It’s right at the beginning of the film, but this conversation sets the tone for the rest of the film that follows and firmly places Yana right in the middle of said patriarchy and servitude.

The film is shot almost entirely in a 1:33 aspect ratio, but it only expands past this square frame shape when Yana is attacked on two separate occasions. A proclaimed “detective from the big city” (Kakha Kintsurashvili) who is looking into the arson attack on the prayer house enters Yana’s home one night and sexually assaults her there. On one other occasion, Yana goes to one of the few spots she holds dear to herself and is brutally raped by the same man at this spot. During these two scenes, the aspect ratio changes into a full screen shot plunging the viewers and Yana into a wider, quieter isolation. The seemingly empty spaces of the locations we’d only seen previously in a smaller aspect ratio expands into more uncertain territory. While this isn’t a horror film, it’s moments like these that horrify and isolate more than any actual mainstream horror film has done in a while.

This is Dea Kulumbegashvili’s directorial debut and what a debut it is. The themes she explores here on a woman’s place in religion, along with how patriarchy also influences it, are confidently intrinsic and the performance she coaxes out of Sukhitashvilli is nothing short of admirable. One of the strongest scenes that reflect both of these women’s talent is near the end of the film where Yana’s husband learns of her rape. Her husband blames her and questions what the elders will think of her when they find out. Following a suspenseful camera pan and a moment of silence, she utters simply: “Then punish me.” It’s a morally backwards conversation, sure, but Kulumbegashvili’s framing of the scene and Sukhitashvilli’s delivery in this moment alone is the loudest moment in a very quiet film.

“Beginning” is a long, exhausting journey and not only because of its brutal attack scenes. The pacing is quite frustrating at times, as it’s two-hour runtime can sometimes feel much longer than it already is. The film is also a bit too ambiguous at times, flailing between an abundance of expository dialogue or extended moments of silence with a barrage of seemingly random shots that go on for long moments at a time. However, “Beginning” is also an empathetic and brave film that manages to say so much without ever raising its voice because it doesn’t need to. It already speaks volumes. Its final shot also comes as a surprising moment of finality in a film that needed a very strong final moment, and from where it stands now, it’s one of the best ones I’ve seen in a while.

Grade: 4/5

“Beginning” does not currently have a US release date.

This film was screened virtually as part of the 58th annual New York Film Festival by the reviewer.

Featured image: Courtesy Wild Bunch

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Spencer Kain

Spencer Kain

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