Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning

Ia Sukhitashvili in Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning (2020)

Executive produced by Carlos Reygadas, selected by Cannes, and awarded the FIPRESCI prize in Toronto, Georgian writer-director Dea Kulumbegashvili’s debut feature, Beginning, swept up four top awards in San Sebastián over the weekend—best film, director, screenplay, and actress. “One of the most fulfilling experiences a moviegoer can have at a festival is encountering a new voice in cinema,” writes Notebook editor Daniel Kasman. “This encounter produces an electricity and a hope: Cinema continues onward, on new paths. Kulumbegashvili definitely inspires that hope.” From next Monday through October 10, the New York Film Festival will present virtual screenings of Beginning as part of its Main Slate.

Kulumbegashvili wrote the screenplay with Rati Oneli, who plays David, the leader of a small community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in a remote town at the foot of the Greater Caucasus mountains not far from Georgia’s border with Azerbaijan. Ostracized in a predominantly Eastern Orthodox Christian country, the congregation is listening to David preach when Molotov cocktails are tossed into their Kingdom Hall. Everyone, including David’s wife, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), and their son, Giorgi (Saba Gogichaishvil), makes it out alive, but the Hall burns to the ground.

When David turns to the local authorities with surveillance footage of the attack, he’s advised to wipe it clean. Instead, he’ll head to a conference where he’ll try to convince the church elders to finance a rebuilding, leaving Yana behind to deal with a repugnantly aggressive detective, Alex (Kakha Kintsurashvili). A former actress, Yana has married into a church to which she’s never felt she belongs. “Life goes by as if I weren’t there,” she tells David at one point. “Yana’s pain can be luminously transparent or alarmingly opaque, and Sukhitashvili’s performance is a restrained study in desolation and unraveling,” writes Sheri Linden in the Hollywood Reporter. “Alex is id and monster, the embodiment of intolerance, misogyny, institutional power. As Yana grows less and less anchored to the day-to-day, he’s the punishment she believes she needs.”

The story is told in a series of long takes with characters wandering in and out of the static frames. Beginning is “gorgeously shot by Arseni Khachaturan in a 35 mm palette of greatly subtle color,” writes Kasman, with Kulumbegashvili’s framing “isolating the family in the community, and isolating Yana in her family.” At Ioncinema, Nicholas Bell finds that Kulumbegashvili “arrives like the feminist descendent of a Cristi Puiu or a Cristian Mungiu with a grueling masterwork which oscillates between strident peaks of frustration and anxiety, meditation and poetics.”

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