At the midpoint of her astounding first feature “Beginning,” Georgian writer-director Dea Kulumbegashvili pulls off a brazen formalist coup that will either envelop you entirely in its world or freeze you out for good. On a glimmering autumn afternoon, put-together mother Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili) goes strolling with her pre-teen son Giorgi (Saba Gogichaishvili) in local woodlands, pausing at a leaf-carpeted clearing, where ringing birdsong and insect chatter fuse into a kind of white noise. Carefully, she lies down and closes her eyes. For six minutes, across one unbroken, tightly framed shot, we watch her rest, playing dead when her son tries to rouse her; eventually, the soundtrack of nature is subsumed by the quiet of her mind, briefly at peace.
“Beginning” contains more jolting provocations on either side of this pristine long take, but none quite so breathtaking. Some may dismiss it as an indulgent stunt, but viewers receptive to Kulumbegashvili’s aesthetic will themselves be drawn into Yana’s same fragile trance — a moment of head-cleared calm that, given what we’ve already seen, must inevitably precede some violent disruption. We cling to these drawn-out minutes rather than waiting them out; the film, while no stranger to silence, will never be so serene again. We’ve already heard her describe a nagging sense of malaise to her husband: “It’s as if I were waiting for something to start, or to end.” Kulumbegashvili frequently drops her audience in the same anxious limbo.
With its preponderance of long, still takes and sustained passages of non-verbal storytelling — all the better to focus our attention on DP Arseni Khachaturan’s precise, almost tweezer-adjusted compositions in tight Academy ratio — Kulumbegashvili’s debut openly prompts comparisons to such formalist titans as Michael Haneke and Carlos Reygadas. (The latter’s name is especially invited by his presence here as an executive producer.) She has enough directorial poise and muscle for such reference points to flatter her rather than trip her up, but either way, “Beginning” is not a derivative work. Its slow-cinema trappings aren’t merely plucked from the films that have taught its maker along the way, but prove a rhythmically apt, intuitive way into the headspace of its protagonist, a woman who feels her very life has been put on pause.
Yana was an actress once, in a youth that can’t have been all that long ago — she’s in her late thirties — but may as well count as another life. Since then, she’s married David (Rati Oneli, also one of the film’s writers and producers), a Jehovah’s Witness minister bent on forging a following in the unaccepting Orthodox Christian terrain of rural Georgia, and had a son. And while religious wifedom and motherhood now constitute her entire public identity, her acting skills still come heavily into play, as she puts on a stoic face of assurance and contentment for a community that is not so stable.
The film’s indelible, eight-minute opening shot illustrates what she (and they) are up against: From the back of the modest Kingdom Hall, the camera statically watches as Yana enters, ushering in a congregation for an afternoon service, which David goes on to deliver with chiding vigor. Before he can work up a full head of fire and brimstone, someone beats him to the punch: A Molotov cocktail is hurled into the room from the entrance, and the camera remains unmoved as hysteria ensues. The worshippers are more panicked than Yana and David, who share the frame’s sangfroid; this isn’t the first strike against them, and she’s beginning to wonder what it’s all for. When David heads to the city for a few days for a debriefing with church elders, she defies his command by insisting on staying home. She wants to be alone, she says: Whether that means a time-out to reconsider her marriage or her very existence, it’s among the many thoughts she keeps to herself.
David duly leaves her alone, but the universe does not. Her temporary peace is shattered again by an unnamed, alleged detective (Kakha Kintsurashvili) from Tbilisi, who presses her with questions about the recent bombing, which turn out to be only a prelude to more intimate, invasive interrogation. Over two profoundly uncomfortable, slow-burning scenes, he strips all the rigid defenses she maintains as a barrier even from her husband. His predatory psychological violence eventually gives way to an assault that merits the strongest of trigger warnings — shot aerially by Kulumbegashvili and Khachaturan with both discreet distance and unrelenting plainness of perspective.
Yana’s reaction to this mid-film rupture is neither predictable nor rash. Instead, Kulumbegashvili and the superb Sukhitashvili — whose solemn, straight-backed bearing just seems to conceal more pain by the minute — play out a dissociated breakdown in considered slow motion, until all Yana’s angsts and anxieties crystallize into devastating resolve, an act against masculinity less vengeful than preventative. If “Beginning” doesn’t reward her, or the audience, with the cathartic action prescribed by sundry variations of the rape-revenge melodrama, it’s because Kulumbegashvili isn’t fixated on one unspeakable act, but uses it to place in relief the many, incremental ways patriarchal society has worked over years to hollow out a woman’s life.
The sooner we see this, the more urgency and gravity we feel in the film’s intricate, painstaking focus on Yana’s daily domestic rituals, lengthy woodland naps and all. The boxy dimensions of the frame don’t just outline her social isolation, but evoke, in tandem with richly expressive, disorienting sound design, an outside world she can see but not touch. Some of Kulumbegashvili’s tableaux, it seems, converse directly with the exquisite feminist drudgery of Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” likewise building to a quietly drastic break in routine. In “Beginning,” the ambiguous, elliptical ending wrenches us from Yana’s perspective entirely, for a cosmic act of closure that isn’t so much an enactment of justice as an aloof admission that all agents of evil eventually expire, until they begin anew. In between, as in so many stretches of this extraordinary film, silence fills the waiting space.