As it is in life, what exists just outside the frame is a terrifying prospect in “Beginning,” the weight of which director Dea Kulumbegashvili makes you feel throughout by shrinking one’s view to the tightest possible aspect ratio. The threat of the unexpected and unseen is exposed almost immediately when a Molotov cocktail bursts through the church run by David (Rati Oneli) and his wife Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili) in the middle of a service with little suggestion of what would provoke such an attack, especially on such a small gathering of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It ends up not really mattering when David leaves to report the damage and looks for the funds to rebuild from church officials and the worst is yet to come for Yana, who is left to tend to his responsibilities as well as caring for their young son Giorgi.
Yana makes the mistake of opening the door to a detective from Tbilisi investigating the fire, or at least that’s how he introduces himself, but Kulumbegashvili and co-writer Oneli use the one innocent misstep to show how she’s made to feel at fault for far more in a society where religious strictures and misogyny have left her powerless even as she is the one holding everything together. Often belittled for once daring to pursue a career as an actress, she is both intrigued and frustrated with how she might be able to mold Giorgi into someone more enlightened than the men she’s known, taking long solitary breaks that Kulumbegashvili lets unfold with great patience to find the inner strength to carry on as she’s well aware of the value, or lack thereof, that her opinions have.
It’s stunning to think that this is Kulumbegashvili’s feature directorial debut when it exudes an uncommon confidence, reminiscent of Lucretia Martel in how she conveys what presence Yana feels she has in the world through scenes in which she can remain entirely off-camera or marginalized even in the smallest of spaces. (A contentious exchange in a car with her husband becomes truly breathtaking by making inventive use of a rearview mirror.) There are certain viscerally unnerving horrors that unfold on screen, but “Beginning” effectively conjures the fears Yana has without ever needing to show them as the meticulous accumulation of assaults on her, both physical and psychological, let the imagination outpace anything that can occur in reality.
Whatever proof alcohol was inside the bottle that sets the church aflame in those unforgettable opening minutes, “Beginning” has something even stronger bottled up inside of it as Yana reaches a breaking point and while there’s never an obvious second explosion, Kulumbegashvili lays bare devastation that is constantly rekindling as Yana attempts to move forward with her life, reckoning with carnage that occurred generations before she could ever do anything about it. Sukhitashvili’s measured performance generously allows audiences into her thoughts and although Yana’s never given the opportunity to start from scratch, “Beginning” is as bold a debut as they come, suggesting that Kulumbegashvili will not only be charting an exciting path all her own as a filmmaker, but one well worth following.