Note: This review was originally published as part of NYFF 2020 coverage. It is being re-published in line with the UK MUBI release.
In the debut of Georgian filmmaker Dea Kulumbegashvili, a woman at the centre of a family of Jehovah’s Witness missionaries finds herself persecuted for the deeds of the men around her. It’s a stark, slow, beautifully composed look at the intersection of the religious and the secular, and a mother caught at the crossroads between a world she was forced into and the world she left behind. Kicked off by an act of terror against the Prayer House she and her husband have set up in a remote village, the events that ensue plague Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili) with abuse, fear, doubt, and a tenuous search for stability and inner peace. Beginning — focused on long stretches of silence and large swathes of negative space, scenes often unnerving and tense to the point of horrifying — tells a woman’s quiet tale of subservience and loss of autonomy.
Following an arson attack that renders Yana and David’s (Rati Oneli) church unsalvageable, David leaves Yana and their son Giorgi (Saba Gogichaishvili) at home for a period to erect a new Prayer House elsewhere. David’s performative machismo forces Yana into the role of submissive wife, as he comforts and professes his love for her but criticises her for spoiling their son, which he believes is keeping him from becoming a man. In the meantime, Yana feels less than assured that the local police will do anything to find the perpetrator, as their unhelpful methods and empty claims beset the family during a prior incident. Alone and frightened for the safety of herself and her son, Yana receives a visit from a detective who claims to have been in contact with David, but sexually assaults her, forcing her to speak openly about her and David’s sex life for his own amusement.
As Yana struggles with herself, her hostile surroundings, and the expectations of her husband, her insular life slowly unravels as she searches for identity and belonging in a world that seems to not want her. She visits her mother at one point, who tends to Yana’s teenage sister and her sister’s child, the young father of whom does not know the child exists. Yana’s mother tells her a story of how, when Yana was a baby, she still preferred to be free from the clutches of men. Before Yana and David got married, she was an aspiring actress, an aspiration of which David now refers to as something he saved her from. David hears Yana, but does not listen to her. The police hear Yana’s pleas for the perpetrator of her church’s firebombing to be caught, but do nothing. The malevolent detective, Alex (Kakha Kintsurashvili) — or is he a detective? — only wishes to harm Yana, intent on making a mockery of her strict religion. Yana can trust no one but herself, and who that may be is quickly fading away into obscurity.
With an almost exclusively stagnant camera, the most harrowing of scenes are filmed from an impassive distance. Characters speak in shots devoid of visible life, or with the character being spoken to in frame instead; space consistently abounds, as if to emphasise the isolation that haunts Yana in every aspect of her life. At one point, a scene nearing ten minutes in length and perhaps the most intimately shot in the whole film involves Yana simply resting on the cold earth. She’s cradled by grass and crackling leaves, sunlight kissing the crown of her head, birdsong twittering serenely in the background until it gives way to utter silence. If Yana were to have it her way, this extended sequence would be the entirety of the film’s remainder. She is alone and herself, at peace.
Instead, she suffers blame by David upon his return for the heinous acts of Alex, hunted by Alex for the religious convictions of her husband. She’s pursued and cornered like an animal, the film’s second, more celebratory religious ceremony acting as an ominous prelude for what’s to come. By the end of the film, Alex’s murky true nature (corrupt detective or masquerading troublemaker) feels more than meets the eye. One begs to wonder if he’s the devil in disguise, sent to torment Yana further into uncertainty over her identity in the worlds of the religious and the secular, the final step to push her over the edge into pure sin. Beginning is a gripping, if extremely measured, look at the abuse and misogyny which exists in two worlds that ultimately overlap, and one woman’s search for some semblance of self when she becomes lost between them.
Beginning is now available to stream exclusively on MUBI
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs