Beginning (5 stars)

Beginning

Déa Kulumbegashvili astounds with her absorbing and immaculately shot first feature

If a film fitting comfortably into the category of 'slow cinema' can be off-putting, done well, this contemplative style of filmmaking can hypnotise like no other. It may be the sedate pace, or perhaps it's the challenging subject matter, but Beginning finds itself with the most low-key of UK releases. And yet it introduces a ferociously talented new female filmmaker, Georgian writer-director Déa Kulumbegashvili, who cleaned up at 2020's San Sebastián International Film Festival, while Beginning was also part of the official selection for Cannes and the recipient of Toronto's FIPRESCI Prize.

Rightly winning comparisons to the work of Carlos Reygadas (who acts as executive producer here) and Michael Haneke, Beginning attempts to shed some light on a woman who seems to exist only as an extension of her husband, and who thus feels like she is disappearing. Yana (a mesmerising Ia Sukhitashvili) is the wife of a Jehovah's Witness religious leader, David (Rati Oneli, the film's co-writer), whose place of worship in rural Georgia is firebombed at the outset in a shocking scene.

Although clearly a quiet character, Yana admits to David that she is in the midst of an existential crisis. It's something he is insensitive to – preferring her to be staunchly supportive of his work and always available to him – but he nevertheless agrees to leave her and her doted-on son Giorgi (Saba Gogichaishvili) in peace, while he attempts to get financial help from the elders to rebuild his church. However, Yana quickly finds herself threatened by a sinister man claiming to be a police detective (Kakha Kintsurashvili), who is keen for her husband to drop his complaint regarding the fire.

Despite her long takes, static or slow-moving camerawork and sometimes provocative and perverse visual choices, Kulumbegashvili, who studied filmmaking in America, is not so far here from a commercial sensibility; her film is very tense and plenty eventful – more thriller than drama for the most part. There may be moments that are haunting or flat-out alarming, but it's possible to get pleasantly lost in the film's gentle rhythms – one sequence where Yana plays dead by laying down in a wood amongst the autumn leaves is astonishing in its stillness, save the near-indiscernible shifts in the light that falls on her face.

Working fruitfully with cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan, Kulumbegashvili ensures her debut is absolutely full of such strikingly realised scenes, including some real charmers involving children. The director's compositions, way of holding us at a sometimes paralysing remove before bringing us painfully close, and brilliant use of off-screen space mark her out as someone to watch very closely, hopefully for years to come.

Available to watch on MUBI from Fri 29 Jan.

Beginning

  • 5 stars
  • 2020
  • Georgia / France
  • 1h 48min
  • Directed by: Déa Kulumbegashvili
  • Cast: Ia Sukhitashvili, Rati Oneli
  • UK release: 29 January 2021

A Jehovah Witness community is attacked by an extremist group.