The boxy frame of the camera turns into a trap in “Beginning,” the masterful debut feature by the Georgian filmmaker Dea Kulumbegashvili. For the film’s opening, the camera plants itself on one end of a small Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall and stays there, unmoving, as the congregants slowly filter in and the preacher begins his sermon. It doesn’t budge even when, nearly eight uninterrupted minutes into the shot, a Molotov cocktail flies into the room and explodes into flames, scattering the panicked worshipers.
The scene is a warning to viewers of this unsparing film: Fear the frame. Locked in its rigid, rectangular grip, you will be unable to escape what’s onscreen or anticipate what awaits just outside.
“Beginning” follows Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), the preacher’s wife, as she deals with the fallout of that firebomb attack. A former actress, she has given up her career to support her husband’s mission in a predominantly Orthodox Christian town outside Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. The film ensnares her in circles of religious and patriarchal persecution: The police take no action on the attack despite there being surveillance footage of the perpetrators, and when Yana’s husband goes to the city to consult with community elders, a detective arrives at her doorstep. In one of the film’s many queasy tableaux of simmering violence, this unnamed man interrogates Yana in her living room, preying more and more humiliatingly on her status both as a cultural minority and a woman.
Power-plays of faith and gender trace acrid paths across “Beginning,” but neither is the central subject of the film. There’s little psychological or sociocultural detail in the movie’s fastidious compositions, which fix Yana in shadow-flecked rooms and landscapes as stifling as they are gorgeous.
Instead, if Kulumbegashvili’s film is about anything, it’s the act of seeing — of witnessing. Such is the effect of the violence that ensues when Yana encounters the detective near her home in the dead of the night. Kulumbegashvili holds the bone-chilling scene for what feels like an eternity, keeping us at a distance that only amplifies its horror. If this test of viewer endurance is a bit sadistic, it’s also remarkable in how cleanly it strips the scene of any sensationalism. Rarely has a film made me so painfully, viscerally aware of the impotence of spectatorship — of the dubious remove from which we watch suffering.
As the film’s cloistered frame closes in on Yana, “Beginning” plunges us further into despair — until its mystifying coda opens the movie into a whole other world. Kulumbegashvili leaves us with an ethereal reprieve from her film’s corporeal terrors.
Not rated. In Georgian, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes. Watch on Mubi.
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