THE screen’s opening words are: “Be grateful to God as he is the kindest” (Psalm 106). Beginning (advisory classification 18), in contrast, examines whether punishment is ever divine.
The Prayer House leader David (Rati Oneli) is preaching about Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. His exposition is shockingly disrupted by an extremist group hostile to Jehovah’s Witnesses, though the film never names them as such. This is small-town Georgia, where 84 per cent of the population is Orthodox. Other denominations are scornfully treated.
Ia Sukhitashvili, whose credits include Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The President, plays his wife. Yana is in mourning for her life. She is ill at ease with the model of godly obedience which David’s brand of faith demands of her. Trying to explain her feelings, she tells him: “Life goes by,” as if she is waiting for it to begin or, perhaps, end. David is not unsympathetic, but deeply rooted in a faith requiring female compliance.
The director, Dea Kulumbegashvili, in her debut feature, draws on an interpretation of the Fall from Paradise expounded by St Irenaeus. Eve recognised Eden’s limitations. If she was to grow as a human being, then an element of disobedience was necessary. Yana can’t do this. She doesn’t know how to emancipate herself. The very idea of questioning an allotted role terrifies her, of wanting something that she is afraid to name.
Her crisis comes to a head when Alex (Kakha Kintsurashvili) visits her. Claiming to be a detective investigating the assault on the Prayer House, he chillingly turns his questions into abusive behaviour. Yana is terrified. amd yet awakened by Alex, who acts as an enigma, entering and leaving as if he had never been there. Are we meant to perceive this incident as a spiritual test of Yana along the lines of Abraham’s? Perhaps Alex is the divine punishment that Yana believes she deserves for daring to entertain thoughts of personhood contrary to her religious community’s beliefs.
What richly assists the tale is its telling through a series of tableaux. Arseni Khachaturan’s near-square (1:33 aspect ratio), extended fixed-position compositions give one time to contemplate what might be happening, particularly to Yana, and to ourselves in the process. When she feigns being asleep on the grass, alarming her young son, is she struggling to make sense of the world around her, reflecting on her sense of worthlessness or day-dreaming about what would constitute an abundant life?
Many other scenes have thought-provoking consequences, including the prolonged takes that provide time to stop and stare at natural beauty or puzzle at what is really going on in the human exchanges. The film’s aesthetics, as well as its themes, owe something to the film Silent Light (Arts, 7 May 2008) made by Carlos Reygadas, an executive producer on Beginning. Similarly constructed camerawork, alongside a woman’s place in an oppressed and oppressive religious community, are common to both films, including an element of the supernatural. Kulumbegashvili takes us frighteningly east of Eden and yet to where (in words from the Orthodox liturgy) the day lies open before us if only we can find ways to fling off the night.
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