REVIEW: Beginning (NYFF 2020)
Let’s not sugarcoat things: Beginning may be something of an acquired taste. It belongs to that class of long, contemplative Eastern European films that speaks volumes through their moments of silence. Beginning requires a great deal of patience and focus from its viewers, but those who are willing to make a certain level of commitment to it will be rewarded. Accessible? Not really. Exciting Friday night cinema? Certainly not. But it is an intriguing character study from an exciting new female director, and there are worse films to take a chance on.
Beginning revolves around the quiet, perhaps even dull life of a woman who is a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia (the country, not the state). After her church is burned down by arsonists, her husband the pastor journeys to the city to meet with the council of elders in the hopes of securing funds to rebuild the church. She is left alone with her young son, and begins to reckon with the suffocating nature of her life. Beginning moves at a glacial pace, an intentional choice from the director to force us to feel every single second of her unfulfilling life, which each shot lingering until they become stifling and oppressive. She wants time alone to just be, to exist without any expectations put on her as a wife or a mother.
There’s a sense that she has sacrificed her own identity, and is desperately trying to claw her way back to some semblance of personhood. There are tantalizing hints of who she was before she joined the church, before she became a pious, domestic figure, but it’s left purposefully unexplored. This is not so much about what that specific identity was, but rather her reclamation of any identity whatsoever that is not subsumed by her matriarchal responsibilities. In one scene, she lies motionless in the middle of the woods, with her son frantically trying to revive her. “I was just kidding,” she says. “I’m alive.” It feels as much of a reminder to her as anything else. Here, again, we see moments of stillness and quietude, as she allows herself to be fully focused on her own physical experience. Meditative with layers of despondency, Ia Sukhitashvili as Yana is incredibly evocative, communicating effortlessly with a look or meaningful pause. She grounds Beginning, and any emotional impact is entirely a result of her performance.
Still, though, Beginning too often veers towards the inaccessible, and runs the risk of boring all but the most dedicated viewers. It’s difficult to avoid the fact that almost nothing actually happens, and what little does is so thoroughly and inescapably ugly that it’s difficult to imagine this being an enjoyable experience for anyone. It’s pretty much a slog, honestly, and only the brief glimmers of poignancy rescue it. That and the haunting visuals which are, to be fair, incredibly effective. The sparse, desolate landscape highlights Yana’s sense of isolation, and there are many scenes striking in their stillness. The opening scene of the Jehovah’s Witnesses filing in for church service only for it to be burnt down around them is utterly arresting, and it’s a shame that more of Beginning doesn’t capture that energy.
But what is incredibly impressive about Beginning is how confident Dea Kulumbegashvili is a first-time director. The shots, the pacing, everything about the film is done with such intention and sense of purpose — the question of whether or not it all completely works is subjective and entirely irrelevant. If this is what Kulumbegashvili has to contribute to cinema, she deserves to have so many more opportunities to showcase her unique brand of storytelling. Beginning is likely to be a divisive work, where some audiences will read into it deep emotional truths and others will be left cold. But its skill is undeniable, and for those who dine out on a nice piece of abstract, arthouse cinema meditating on the loneliness of existence, an intriguing new voice has just been discovered.