13 films were in the running for prizes in this year’s San Sebastian Film Festival competition, but it doesn’t appear to have been much of a contest at all. In a stunning sweep, Georgian writer-director Dea Kulumbegashvili’s debut feature “Beginning” took four of the jury’s seven prizes, including Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actress for star Ia Sukhitashvili, and finally the Golden Shell for Best Film.
It’s a remarkable haul for a harrowing, avant-garde film that has taken critics by surprise this fall festival season, also landing the Fipresci critics’ prize in Toronto last week. The Franco-Georgian production centers on a close-knit community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in remote rural Georgia, and tracks the growing psychological torment of its leader’s wife (played by Sukhitashvili) in the wake of an extremist attack on their place of worship.
A challenging film to economically distil, it has prompted critical comparisons to the work of Chantal Akerman and Michael Haneke, and bears the imprimatur of executive producer Carlos Reygadas, though it establishes the 34-year-old Kulumbegashvili as a unique talent in her own right. Jury president Luca Guadagnino preceded the presentation of the top prize with a lavish dedication to the film, describing it as “a revelation.”
“Beginning” was one of several Cannes Label films to unspool at San Sebastian, having been intended to premiere in the French fest’s official competition — though had that come to pass, it’s hard to imagine the film would have been as spectacularly rewarded as it was tonight. It will go on to play virtually at the New York Film Festival, where it looks to be a hot ticket. The interest of international distributors will likewise have been piqued by its triumph.
Among the film’s fighting for the few remaining scraps left by the jury, veteran British director Julien Temple’s music documentary “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan,” come out on top, winning the runner-up Special Jury Prize. The film, an irreverent, loosely styled profile of the frontman of Irish punk-rock band The Pogues, matches the shambolic, hard-drinking personality of its subject with wild formal swings and animated excerpts, and is produced by Johnny Depp, who also makes an onscreen appearance.
It was one of three documentaries in the official selection: In his speech, Temple commended the festival for breaking down the divide between fiction and non-fiction filmmaking, noting that he sees little difference between the two.
Continuing in the boozy spirit of Temple’s film, Best Actor was collectively awarded to the male ensemble of Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round”: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang and Lars Ranthe. Mikkelsen headlines the film, playing a disaffected high school teacher who decides to juice up his life by becoming a high-functioning alcoholic. Since its Toronto premiere, the film has been widely hailed as a return to form for former Dogme 95 trailblazer Vinterberg, and looks to be major arthouse conversation piece.
It was a strong night for female directors at the festival: In addition to Kulumbegashvili’s victory, women took top honors in the festival’s New Directors, Latin Horizons and Zabaltegi-Tabakaleri competitions. In a high-quality, competitive New Directors section, German-born newcomer Isabel Lamberti took the prize for her moving docufiction hybrid “Last Days of Spring,” a powerful study of an extended real-life family on the outskirts of Madrid, facing the tumult of being rehomed by the authorities.
The Latin Horizons Award, meanwhile, went to Mexican director Fernanda Valadez for her film “Identifying Features,” delivering on the promise of the Films In Progress Award she won for the same project at San Sebastian in 2018. The film also landed audience and jury awards at Sundance in January. Portuguese freshman Catarina Vasconcelos landed the Zabaltegi-Tabakalera prize for her debut “The Metamorphosis of Birds.”
Finally, the festival’s audience awards went to a pair of established Sundance hits. Florian Zeller’s tear-jerking Anthony Hopkins-Olivia Colman starrer “The Father” landed the main prize, underlining its broad appeal as it heads into Oscar season. Maite Alberdi’s playful documentary “The Mole Agent,” meanwhile, took the audience award for best European film of the fest.
OFFICIAL SELECTION PRIZES
Golden Shell for Best Film: “Beginning,” Dea Kulumbegashvili
Special Jury Prize: “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan,” Julien Temple
Silver Shell for Best Director: “Beginning,” Dea Kulumbegashvili
Silver Shell for Best Actress: “Beginning,” Ia Sukhitashvili
Silver Shell for Best Actor: “Another Round,” Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang and Lars Ranthe
Best Screenplay: “Beginning,” Dea Kulumbegashvili and Rati Oneli
Best Cinematography: “Any Crybabies Around?,” Yuta Tsukinaga
OTHER FESTIVAL PRIZES:
New Directors’ Award: “Last Days of Spring,” Isabel Lamberti
New Directors’ Award (Special Mention): “Slow Singing,” Dong Xingyi
Horizontes Award: “Identifying Features,” Fernanda Valadez
Horizontes Award (Special Mention): “One in a Thousand,” Clarisa Navas
San Sebastian Audience Award: “The Father,” Florian Zeller
Audience Award for Best European Film: “The Mole Agent,” Maite Alberdi
Zabaltegi-Tabakalera Award: “The Metamorphosis of Birds,” Catarina Vasconcelos
Zabaltegi-Tabakalera Award (Special Mention): “The Woman Who Ran,” Hong Sang-soo
TVE Another Look Award: “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Eliza Hittman
TVE Another Look Award (Special Mention): “Gull,” Kim Mi-jo
Spanish Cooperation Award: “Identifying Features,” Fernanda Valadez
Irizar Basque Film Award: “Where is Mikel?,” Amaia Merino and Miguel Angel Llamas