With the camera positioned in the back of a small church facing toward the front, the idea of the static frame, and all of its varied dramatic possibilities, is introduced early in Georgian national Dea Kulumbegashvili‘s debut feature film Beginning (2020). The space is unoccupied before Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili) enters with a group of boys, one of them being her son, who has been misbehaving. She stand them beside the window with their faces pressed against the wall as a punishment while other churchgoers enter the building. The preacher, David (Rati Oneli), enters and orders the window blinds closed and the lights turned off so that he can give a slide presentation on Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. The congregation hesitates to answer David’s questions, but anyone with a basic sense of this passage in Genesis is likely beginning to piece together his sermon for him. Kulumbegashvili tries to get viewers comfortable while also setting the stage for themes that will manifest themselves throughout this film.
The door, which is just outside of our field of vision, suddenly opens. We assume another churchgoer is going to enter, but instead a Molotov cocktail is lobbed into the church and explodes. The door slams shut, and panic takes hold of this house of worship. Another Molotov cocktail is thrown in through the other entrance before it is shut as well. No one can get out of the inferno, and smoke fills the space quickly. A man lifts a pew and slams it against a window.
Beginning is a film in which familiar spaces change over time, sometimes even over the course of a single shot, as in the film’s opening scene. The mysteries of what’s outside of the frame or just around the corner inspire fear and draw out anxiety. The element of the unknown is foregrounded, and Kulumbegashvili’s use of the 4:3 aspect ratio crams our attention into a claustrophobic cage of willful spectatorship.
For Yana – who we discover shortly after the opening scene is married to the preacher – the fear of the unknown is hers to bear. Her husband sees the attack upon their Jehovah’s Witness church as just another provocation from an intolerant community, and he seeks to raise the funds for a new church building within the next month. That aspect of marriage, of supporting and having faith in one’s partner and their ambitions, is just another source of fear, and not necessarily for the obvious reason that his occupation has invited attacks upon them. David has a sense of security in knowing that he calls the shots, but Yana is along for the ride. ‘Til death do they part.
While her husband is away securing the commission for a new church, the structures of comfort quickly collapse around Yana when a man claiming to be a police officer (Kakha Kintsurashvili) arrives at her door late at night. She allows him inside her home, and it is in this moment that the hallway from the front door is established as a place of tension – a barrier better left safeguarded, but her naiveté trumps rationality. Their conversation starts out fairly by the books, but a few hints of an ulterior political motive trickle in before the whole thing devolves into a game of terror as the plains-clothed officer asks a series of forthright questions about Yana’s sex life with her husband. She does not wish to answer, but she quickly realizes that compliance may keep her unharmed.
One of the major themes of Beginning is embracing the inevitable, and some of Yana’s actions over the course of the film invite or preemptively bring about events of great consequence in her life and family. However, this penchant for veering toward disaster is also a means of taking hold of that life and willing it to certain ends. Ia Sukhitashvili’s performance as Yana feels effortless, even as the role demands more of an actress than most films would dare. The sincerity and naturalism of her performance is found in the moments of silence that dominate this film, and yet it’s in the snot of her sobbing and the mud clumped on her face that her portrayal of a woman on the edge will stay with viewers of this confident debut.
Supporting her performance is Dea Kulumbegashvili’s deft attention to the framing of each scene and her commitment to a heightened yet natural soundscape. Every sound poses a possible threat, and the wrong kind of silence can signify something just as dangerous as the loud rush of a stream of water. Our senses are captive to images and sounds that occasionally seem to distract from what is actually happening, but we are in the hands of a filmmaker who knows how to guide the drama and exploit set composition. The foreground, background, and everything in between are utilized to their fullest capacity, and the boundaries of the frame constantly leave us worried about what we cannot see. Further, the rare moments when the camera moves are all dramatically earned.
I’m hesitant to compare this film to the works of other filmmakers, though there are a few names that readily come to mind when looking at the terrors of domestic life. From its patient yet frightening beginning to its grand Old Testament-worthy finale, Beginning is, hopefully, a promise of more to come from its director.
Beginning is currently 655/2,623 (75%) on my Flickchart.