Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Dea Kulumbegashvili
Writer: Dea Kulumbegashvili, Rati Oneli
Cast: Ia Sukhitashvili, Rati Oneli, Kakha Kintsurashvili, Saba Gogichaishvili
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/4/21
Opens: January 29, 2021
One of the long gags about the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the U.S. is that when you hear your doorbell ring on Sunday morning, you pretend you’re not home. This is because the religious sect, intent on awakening religious awareness and hopefully finding new members for the church are so assertive, so confident in their morality that they can barely believe that others might not find them so. If you invite them in for tea, and by “them” we mean that there is always a pair of missionaries, you might find them to be utterly pleasant people who could win you over despite yourself. But how much do we know about their culture?
You won’t find all that much about the general ethics of the religion in “Beginning,” set in a boxy 1:33 aspect ratio that symbolically imprisons the viewer in the story. But you will find a woman, the principal character who is in most frames, to be so oppressed by the small town, by the feeling that she is invisible with no effect on anyone but her pre-pubescent child, and most of all so ignored by her husband who is the leader of a small congregation. This is not the year or the decade of the woman everywhere. If we can stretch a point made in Georgia’s entry to the 93rd Academy Awards competition, women are still controlled by their environment, by the overriding culture, and most of all by their husbands.
Not that David (Rati Oneli) is an evil man. In fact he is the pastor of the congregation, preparing the youths for baptism, questioning even the adults who meet in the church about the meaning of the sacrifice that Abraham is about to make of his son Isaac to God. When in one of the film’s rare, melodramatic scenes the church is firebombed by extremists during a service, the domestic terrorists caught by the surveillance cameras, the police are unwilling to bring charges against the perpetrators. The attack prompts Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili) to feel even more invisible: not only does she stay with her husband who refuses to get a transfer out of the suffocating town near Georgia’s capital, but he refuses to allow her agency if her wishes go against his career moves. Insisting that she accompany him to a meeting with the elders, she refuses. “I want to be alone,” she insists, mimicking the famous quote of Greta Garbo in “Mata Hari.”
A former actress (“you were a terrible actress” notes her husband who ironically claims that he rescued her from the depths of despair), she puts up with ill treatment by her man, even criticized by her mother who advises her that she too put up with hers. When a detective (Kakha Kintsurashvili) shows up, asking her to use her charm to convince David to withdraw her complaint about the destruction of his meeting hall, he segues into a discussion of Yana’s most personal activities, asking her whether she lies when her husband makes love (not his exact word) to her. He asks her to sit next to him on the couch, proceeding to advance sexually, behavior that should horrify feminists but appears to “turn on” Yana, who has been living with a passionless marriage.
This is Dea Kulumbegashvili’s freshman feature film, from a director who was raised in Georgia and studied film direction in New York at Columbia University and the New School. She has her D.P., Arseni Khachaturan, hold his camera still, barely moving the lenses during the tracking shots, and keeping himself at a distance particularly in a scene of violent rape. The film’s most famous scene, a long, seven-minute take with a stationary camera finding Yana with eyes closed, the sun caressing her face, signals one attempt by the frustrated former actress, mother, and obedient wife to meditate on her life’s renewal. The scene gives way, the beauty of the landscape belying the desolation of her life.
“Beginning” looks at first like an ironic title, a bad joke when the woman is doomed to live as each twenty-four hours are like Groundhog Day. Still, a horrifying twist in the final scene could signal the start of a new chapter in her life, one that is anything but encouraging. This is not for those who want Hollywood endings or who can’t imagine watching a woman motionless on the grass for seven minutes. “Beginning,” which happily does not cater to the Hollywood audience with music in the soundtrack, existsfor folks who are fond of learning about human nature in all of its aspects.
In Georgian with English subtitles.
125 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B-
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B