Reviewed for & 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


Beginning (film).jpg

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


THE CHILDREN ACT – movie review


Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Richard Eyre
Screenwriter:  Ian McEwan from his book
Cast:  Emma Thompson, Fionn Whitehead, Stanley Tucci, Ben Chaplin, Eilseen Walsh, Anthony Calf, Jason Watkins, Dominic Carter
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 7/11/18
Opens: August 18, 2018 on DIRECTV.  September 14, 2018 theatrical on A24

Richard Eyre’s film, “The Children Act,” can be used as a primer against the stupidity of fundamentalist religions of all stripes.  But Ian McEwan, who adapted his novel for the screen, has other important issues in his mind.  McEwan (whose novel is available on Amazon for eleven bucks) digs into the character of the woman who is at the center of the story in the book and even more so in the movie.  Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson), a judge on a high court in London which deals exclusively with family cases, involves herself in one particular case which, though revolving around a hospital’s needed permission to save a 17-year-old’s life, affects her so emotionally that she takes dramatic steps before rendering a decision. She is led to question her own life’s choices and forced to deal with regrets about her own choices.  “The Children Act,” then, may be have a strong judicial component that puts it in the class of movies like Xavier Legrand’s “Custody” (a broken marriage leads to a custody battle with an 11-year-old in its center).  Primary focus, though, is on the private life of an eminent jurist who is also an accomplished pianist called upon to give concerts to other important people in the judicial field.

In a subplot that adds to Maye’s emotions and will lead her to a crisis and the early stages of a breakdown, she must deal with the protestations of her husband Jack (Stanley Tucci), a professor of philosophy, who is fed up with what he considers his wife’s unavailability for weekend socializing.  There’s more.  He challenges her to name the date that they last had intimacies, noting that they do not even kiss anymore.  While these justifiable complaints do not change the course of their declining marriage, they increase the helplessness she feels when she delves into the case of Adam (Fionn Whitehead) a 17-year-old boy just months away from becoming an adult with the right to make independent decisions.

On her courtroom docket, parents of the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith claim the right to make their religion felt in the treatment of their son Adam, ill with leukemia, who needs a blood transfusion to have any hope of living without serious physical handicaps or even of pulling through at all.  Deciding to see the boy herself, she visits the hospital room and listens as young Adam repeats his parents’ objections, stating that he is willing to die rather than violate a principle of Jehovah’s Witness, though that faith did not decide against blood transfusions until 1945.  The basis in the Bible is from  Genesis 9:4 “You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood; and Leviticus 17:10 “If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood I will set my face against that person…”  Maye believes that the lad has been brainwashed, is unable to convince him to agree to the transfusion, and goes back to court to deliver her judgment.

The heart of the film is Maye’ emotional connection to this intelligent, pious young man, who becomes the son that she never had.  When Adam, now recovered, visits the judge without an invitation, that is, stalking her, her life from that point is at a crossroad.

We may be tempted to say that Richard Eyre, who is Thompson’s godfather, deserves full credit for evoking a stunning performance from Emma Thompson.  After all, his filmmaking includes “Notes on a Scandal” (a disliked veteran high school teacher appears to befriend a younger one who is having an affair with a 15-year-old student, but the good wishes are just a pose) and “Iris” (a lifelong romance of novelist Iris Murdoch and her husband as she fights Alzheimer’s).  Thompson, who appears in virtually every scene making this perhaps the crowning achievement of her career, makes things easy for the director.  Her status climbed after her separation from Kenneth Branagh.  The Oscar-winning actress has played roles of mostly reticent people in prestige films like “The Remains of the Day” and “Sense and Sensibility.”  According to some, like journalist Sarah Sands, Thompson has “grown with age and experience.”  The 59-year-old performer’s name is often used together with others cast in “heritage” productions, like Helena Bonham Carter, Judi Dench and Kate Winslet, nor can anyone deny that she is among the best actresses of her generation.  “The Children Act” is a perfect vehicle to see her in this classic role at her best.

Rated R.  105 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+