by Kaleem Aftab
- In her mesmerising Georgia-set debut film, Dea Kulumbegashvili questions the norms of society that have been informed by Abrahamic religions
“I look in the mirror and see a stranger staring back,” says Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili). She gave up her career as an actress to marry Jehovah’s Witness missionary David (Rati Oneli). Now she is having doubts about the choices she has made in life. But is choice just an illusion? Beginning [+see also:
interview: Dea Kulumbegashvili
film profile], the mesmerising debut feature by Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili, asks big, complex questions about freedom, religion and equality in patriarchal societies. It constantly challenges the audience, both in its aesthetic choices, with the use of still tableaux framing that gives space for contemplation, and in its indelible transgressive scenes that are difficult to look at or turn away from. One hellish attack is played out in the middle of scenery that is more akin to artistic depictions of Heaven, ensuring that it’s both viscerally ugly and beautiful at the same time. Before unspooling in competition at the San Sebastián Film Festival, Beginning played at Toronto and received a Cannes 2020 label. The remarkable work is confirmation of the talent that Kulumbegashvili showed with her short films Invisible Spaces (2014) and Léthé (2016), both of which played at Cannes.
The first scene cleverly establishes the big themes in the compelling manner of an action-thriller. David is giving a sermon on Abraham at the pulpit. He is projecting paintings of the ultimate sources of sacrifice on screen, a story that unites Judaism, Christianity and Islam, establishing the primacy of a single ruling figure and how this relationship is even more valuable than the one between parent and child. In a naturalistic way, the use of a projector enables Kulumbegashvili to literally play with the darkness and light in the room, which the rest of the movie will do more allegorically.
What is good and what is evil are questions that permeate Beginning, as ideas about the nature of sin are raised and smashed. If attempting to murder your son can be justified, what else is permissible? Before David reaches the end of his sermon, a Molotov cocktail sets fire to the building. The perpetrators have been caught on video surveillance footage, but oddly, the police ask David to wipe it. The police investigation is a brutal desire to maintain the status quo, rather than seek justice. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are seen as an odd minority sect in the predominantly Orthodox Christian society, and so they are ostracised. David refuses to wipe the tape. In any case, can things be wiped so easily from our consciousness and our memory?
Kulumbegashvili uses the camera’s stillness to highlight the exasperation of Yana. Whether she's at her desk or in the kitchen, the length of the scene relays her frustration at her own life. It’s pure cinema – Pasolini from a woman’s perspective. Yana is suffering from depression, going through the motions of teaching her son about the religion given to him, where gender roles in society are defined. Yana wants to feel again, to prove herself and not just be a mother teaching another generation the same ideas and thoughts. It’s an excellent performance by Ia Sukhitashvili, and the solution that she arrives at to release the pain is so abrasive and haunting that it makes female characters in Lars von Trier movies seem tame. It's a film that deserves to be seen, be discussed and win awards.
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