Early on in Beginning, main character Yana tells her husband that her life has become something she doesn’t recognise anymore. She looks into a mirror and doesn’t know who is looking back. It’s as if she is waiting for something to begin, or for something to end, she says.No surprise perhaps that the film’s title, therefore, is key to interpreting this complex and hypnotically told story of a woman experiencing a breakdown of sorts.
In a small rural community in the country of Georgia, Yana is married to David, the head of a local branch of the Jehovah’s Witness religion. They aren’t particularly welcome - the community is Christian Orthodox and, in the film’s absolutely stunning opening scene, this is made very clear indeed. You won’t see a better, more assured curtain raiser in any film all year.
This shocking first scene establishes a tension that rarely lets up as we learn about Yana’s unfulfilled life, the dreams she gave up to support her husband, her role as a mother, and the part she plays within the religious sect.
David goes away for the majority of the film leaving Yana and her son alone, and the arrival of a different, corrupt man threatens her stability even more. Increasingly, incidents happen that bring one part of Yana’s inner self to an end only to see another begin, setting up a slow chain of momentum that will lead to an almost inevitable outcome.
To say more about the plot of Beginning would be unfair as it’s less a film about a story and more a film about a person, Yana, and as played to perfection by Ia Sukhitashvili, she’s a fascinating character.
Beginning is told with great skill and considered economy by first-time feature director Déa Kulumbegashvili. Her style is formal - she shows rather than tells, she allows the camera to stay fixed so that sometimes character speak out of view and we’re not sure what they’re doing, she takes her time (there’s a mesmerising static seven-minute shot of Yana’s face at one point which is pure cinema). There are shots in the film that are like paintings, stunningly photographed, exquisitely lit, utterly captivating. She’s part Hanneke, part Von Trier, and all her own.
Beginning is striking for many reasons - its opening scene, its static camera, its superb performances, its signaling of a major new directorial talent. It’s also striking for something more allusive, a sense of unease and horror, (particularly during an extremely disturbing scene of sexual assault), but one in which we aren’t given easy answers. Yana is neither a victim nor a hero. Hers is a life determined by men and religion but the film isn’t about empowerment, revenge, awakenings. It’s far more subtle than that and, as such, not easy.
Endings and beginnings are interlinked and the start of the film, a Biblical lesson about Abraham being stopped from killing his son as a test of faith by the angel Jehovah, returns in a less spiritual sense at the film's climax, one which refuses to let us, the audience, off lightly. Yana’s motivations are her own, despite what we might want or expect. Even the final shot, a quasi-religious moment of something surreal, provides no easy answers.
Consequently, Beginning will haunt you.Beginning is available to stream on MUBI and to buy on digital outlets.