Cinephiles would do well to store the name of the director of Beginning in their memory banks. Dea Kulumbegashvili, a 30-something Georgian filmmaker, has crafted one of the most hauntingly beautiful first features since Werner Herzog’s Signs of Life back in 1968.
A real love for the medium irradiates Kulumbegashvili’s debut, which tackles complex themes and concerns a conflicted couple isolated from society as well as themselves. Utilising a minimalist aesthetic comprising lengthy single takes (a characteristic largely absent from movies nowadays), the script, co-written by Kulumbegashvili and producer and lead actor Rati Oneli, is a bold departure from established storytelling norms. The 130-minute film is being streamed on Mubi.
Imbued with fierce emotional intensity, the narrative gets underway with a spectacular opening sequence set in a prayer hall where a marginalised community of Jehovah’s Witnesses has congregated to listen to their religious leader (Oneli, appropriately overbearing). Before his sermon is over, the place is set upon by unknown extremists. The burning of the building recalls a similar protracted scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film The Sacrifice (1986), in which flames engulf the protagonist’s house.
In a series of startling ellipses, the minister is elided almost completely from the rest of the film. This then shifts the focus to his conflicted wife Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili, delivering one of the most subtly harrowing performance ever committed to film).
Brutalised both psychologically and sexually, Yana, who reacts primarily with facial and body gestures, eventually commits a transgressive act that poses a daunting challenge to critical judgement. The enigmatic final scene distills her despair, deception and delusions to its spiritual essence.
Ravishingly shot by the masterful Arseni Khachaturan, Beginning catapults its director into the ranks of the finest female filmmakers, ranging from Dorothy Arzner and Lois Weber in the silent era, Chantal Akerman and Agnes Varda during the second half of the twentieth century and Lucrecia Martel and Chloe Zhao in more recent years.
As an added bonus, Beginning on Mubi includes a conversation between director Luca Guadagnino and the wise-beyond-her-years Dea Kulumbegashvili, who speaks with disarming honesty about her debut.
Beginning is Georgia’s submission for the Best International Feature Film category at the Oscars this year. For those desperately seeking excellence in cinema, the movie is essential viewing.