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DEA KULUMBEGASHVILI: BEGINNING დასაწყისი (dasats'q'isi) (2020 - virtual NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL)

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IA SUKHITASHVILI IN BEGINNING

A woman in trouble

Dea Kulumbegashvili is a powerful new talent in the art film world whose un-spellable name we may have to master or simplify as we once did that of Thai cinema prodigy Apichatpong Weerasethakul (aka "Joe"). Let's call her "Dea." This feature about a woman in a remote part of Georgia is of striking originality and decidedly works outside the mainstream, almost veering into the realm of museum-style art film at points. But it's one of the 2020 virtual+drive-in form New York Film Festival's most interesting Main Slate selections, even as it arouses some questions about whether some of its scenes contain more meaning than their initial shock value.

Early on one thinks of Carlos Reygadas, and voila! He executive produced. (Michael Haneke and Chantal Ackerman have also been mentioned.) Having made well received short films after studying filmmaking and media studies in New York, Dea Kulumbegashvili, from Georgia, takes us abruptly into the world of Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), a deeply challenged, yet also self contained and resilient young woman married to David (co-writer Rati Oneli), a Jehovah's Witnesses minister. First their little prayer center is torched by a Molotov cocktail, then she gets sexually, verbally menaced by a cop who comes to "question" her while her husband is away, and later he rapes her out of doors.

We're in a remote mountain village somewhere outside of Tbilisi where Yana, a former actress her husband David "rescued," grew up but that her husband would like to run away from. Actually, he goes to the church authorities to appeal for rebuilding funds for their Kingdom Hall. In doing so, he leaves Yana for most of the film to deal with her roiling self-doubts and a the vicious, sexually predatory local police detective named Alex (Kakha Kintsurashvili). His acquiring that name gives him a kind of intimacy; the film harbors a surprising and peculiar hidden sympathy for him, but then symbolically in a surreal stop-motion sequence dissolves him into ashes and nothingness. (Several shots in this film, by the way, are strongly reminiscent of the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico.)

But first there is the fire, which is as bold an opening coup de théâtre as you're likely to see in any small-budget film in this or any other year. The film establishes Yana as a character well, and sets the religious scene. She enters with several kids and makes them, notably her son, stand away facing the wall as punishment for getting dirty playing on the way. Her husband then conducts a brief class on the Abraham and Isaac story in the Bible and its meaning for individual members of the congregation. But before the latter can be fully expounded boom! The fire bomb falls right in our laps.

Dea's distinctive visual choices dominate the film. It's in a boxy 1:33 aspect ratio, the better to convey the restrictiveness of this world, in particular that of Yana, and there are constant reminders that everything never quite fits into the frame, especially not with her. (The play with the exclusion of the boxy frame is complex and continual.) She doesn't feel complete: she tells her husband she has the sense of being perpetually waiting for something "to start" or "to end" and that "life goes by as if I weren't there." In the opening scene, it's the punished boys standing on the left who get cut out of frame. Imagery shot by Arseni Khachaturan is sharp 35mm film with subtle color and the camera is still, and likes the middle distance, which makes us feel our passive presence when the fire bomb is thrown, and the floor bursts into flame. It's a risky, powerful sequence, obviously showoff-y and not absolutely necessary, but a great way to begin and worth thousands of words about the threatened status of this little Jehovah's Witnesses congregation in a world where Eastern Orthodox Christianity dominates and this offbeat minority is hated.

Later the camera is on Yana, looking at the fire, for a long, long beat before it finally shows the whole small building aflame. Earlier, various men come toward us and make passes at the fire with their coats. Obviously futile; but a fire extinguisher or two might have made a wholly different film.

The agonizingly long sequence when the cop comes calling is an in-your-face coup de théâtre in its own right, a nasty, excruciating-to-watch teaser that pushes the limits of the permissible as Yana remains painfully passive yet somehow in a way also strong: she retains this contradictory imbalance throughout, tough, stoical, and helpless all at once - a lost and confused woman, as she has said she is. (Dialogue is nothing if not too explicit at times: you can't say things are left hanging.)

This film is also about children, from the start, and there are sequences of their pre-baptism classes, then glimpses of the individual oral "exams" (which aren't very severe since some pretty pathetic bad answers to questions go unpunished), and the baptism itself. The child sequences are very important (because they're free to be wrong and misbehave) for opening up this very intentionally confined film. Particularly important, then, is the excellent casting of Saba Gogichaishvili as Giorgi, Yana and David's son, a very interesting young actor who seems both solemn and almost sexy, vulnerable yet self-possessed. Yana may hope to mold him into a man better than the very fallen males she's lived with hitherto.

Not long after the "quiet" rape at home with words and a single gesture of detective Alex's "visit," Yana wanders out, walking up to the camera in semi-darkness after a long, strange shot focused seemingly on the back of her neck, a new way of showing off the confinement-effect of the aspect ratio. Then she walks to a gravelly stream, and here, in the distance, with only the loud sound of running water, we witness Alex's rape for real, though so far off on the small screen we may not be sure it is happening till he runs off and we see his pants are down. This sequence may be questioned as a showoff-y version of Dea's propensity for long takes and long shots. Isn't she calling too much attention to her camera and editing choices, or is she just "seeking to create a new film language" as Antonioni's L'Avventura was commended for in its Cannes Special Jury Prize?

The rest is quieter. Yana visits her mother, where she refuses to talk but learns more about her father and is told that whatever has happened, she need not tell it to her husband. And yet she will have to. The final sequence when David returns with good news, a tape must be explained, and he and Yana talk everything out, she tells him all and they come to a gradual reconciliation. All this may seem to spell things out too clearly. But after all the shocks and confusions of the film, some semblance of certainty is more than welcome. You have to say that Dea's dialogue is as good as her images, if often more workmanlike. And I must acknowledge that, after all my questions throughout, this is one of the most remarkable films in this year's NYFF, and introduces to the world an exciting new filmmaker.

Beginning დასაწყისი (dasats'q'isi), 130 mins. (Georgian language), was chosen for Competition at the cancelled Cannes festival but debuted at Toronto, winning the FIPRESCI Prize there, then showed at San Sebastián where it swept with Best Film, Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Actress; also played at Bergen; and Oct. 5, 2020 in the virtual/drive-in New York Film Festival, as part of which it was screened for this review.

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