On its surface, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s debut, Beginning, immediately recalls Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light. It’s an obvious connection, as both films are set within cloistered religious communities that rarely see representation on screen; Light takes place in a traditional Mennonite colony in Mexico while Beginning focuses on a Jehovah’s Witness missionary in an orthodox Christian village in the Georgian mountainside. But any deeper connections (excepting general tragic undertones) between the two quickly prove untenable: Kulumbegashvili’s film forgoes the prevailing (if measured) pathos that punctuates Reyagadas’s filmography in favor of a loose stylistic and temperamental fusion of Bela Tarr and Michael Haneke. In detailing the story of Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), the wife of a missionary/pastor who enters into a kaleidoscopic spiral of doubt, discontent, resolve, and resignation, Kulumbegashvili both employs the heady, long-take slow cinema of Tarr and channels Haneke’s penchant for casual depictions of cruelty and violence — a rape takes places in long shot and set to silence, and the action blurs into the foliage and rock upon which the transgression is perpetrated — while embracing the distancing, Bressonian affect that informs both.
Beginning opens with a static shot — with the exception of a few slow pans, the film is almost exclusively composed of still frames — of a church auditorium. Clean white walls contrast with a right-angled, blood-red runner marking the walkway and congregants filter in from off-screen for a handful of minutes. Shortly, Yana’s husband David (Rati Oneli) begins his sermon on Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, a pointed message which comes to inform the film’s entirety, before Kulumbegashvili unleashes a stunning sequence: the church’s doors are opened, an unseen presence pitches a bottle-bomb, fire erupts, and churchgoers hustle to put a pew through a window in order to escape. The scene cuts from licking flames to Yana, distraught and alone under the limbs of some proximal tree, the smoldering church still heard off-screen. It’s a directorial introduction like few in recent memory, and the visual confidence continues throughout. Immediately following this, as a postscript of sorts to the bravura opening, Kulumbegashvili shoots the church’s fiery incandescence through a doorframe; the camera slowly unfocuses into an impressionistic wash of color — the mountains’ twilight indigo in the background, steel-colored smoke rising from bright fire, and the dark verdant acreage in between – offering a moment of post-traumatic disassociation before the day’s tragedy racks into focus once more.
But nothing in Beginning is mere ostentation; the director remains assured of her vision and sidesteps familiar arthouse pratfalls by anchoring her human concerns to her visual expressions. Yana is a woman trapped by oppressive forces — religion, marriage, culture, police, patriarchy — and Kulumbegashvili accentuates this guiding context by shooting in claustrophobic 4:3 35mm. She utilizes the frame’s limitations to, yes, emphasize the confines of Yana’s world, but more impressively to lend a sense of expansiveness to her narrative’s widening gyre. Subjects populate the periphery, spilling into and out of compositions that can’t contain them, and conversations are frequently had between a person, fixed in frame, with an individual off-screen — the implication of life’s continuance, and thus Yana’s isolation, in what the camera fails to capture. The director elongates scenes, saturating them in quietude and stillness, to reinforce the suffocating inescapability of Yana’s circumstance, and often shoots her lead in shadow, a representative act of visual dehumanization. And in one of the film’s standout moments, one that inverts its themes of oppression, Yana lays her head upon a forest’s shed leaves, playing dead for a jarring period of time while her son waits off camera for her to interrupt her reprieve, end the pretense, and resume her role. And in this sense, Beginning plays like something of a narrative, emotional, and philosophical denouement to its early crescendo; Yana’s (d)evolution is an act of layering rather than transformation. There are other concerns at hand – the playacting demanded of both religion and marriage, the pain and pleasure of faith (both favored Reygadas themes) — and they are indeed given considerable weight, but Kulumbegashvili is primarily concerned with the phantasmagoric psychological fallout inflicted on the individual as the result of cultural, religious, and gender normatives. The result is something powerfully unique: Kulumbegashvili borrows from Haneke’s brutality, Reygadas’s delicate, gorgeously-rendered human dramas, and Tarr’s patient social portraits, but evinces a singular vision that synthesizes the best of all three — a deeply feeling portrait of a woman struggling against the inertia of her life, expressed with an unsettling air of detachment, and rendered with uncommon artistic confidence and balance.
Published as part of NYFF 2020 — Dispatch 7.