The Heroine’s Journey in “Beginning”

God demanded unfaltering faith from Abraham when he asked him to murder his own child. Abraham’s willingness to carry out the heinous deed without hesitation spoke of a divine loyalty, and today might be interpreted as blind fanaticism. Told in meticulously arranged static frames, director Dea Kulumbegashvili’s debut “Beginning” opens with a service in which a Jehovah’s Witness pastor, David, explains that exact passage just before hateful attackers desecrate their temple.

Settled not too far from Tbilisi, the capital of the Caucasus nation of Georgia, the rural congregation is no stranger to intolerant onslaught from neighbors of other creeds. But the latest incident has heavily fazed former actress Yana, who is now David’s wife and the one in charge of preparing children for their baptism. Her later exchanges with those young devotees, her own son included, are about sins, heaven, and hell; further evidence of how ingrained religion is in their isolated existence.  

Plagued with bitter apprehension from enduring her husband’s rigidness, Yana is tired of having her voiced muffled in every way. Sukhitashvili’s fiercely contained portrayal connotes an unnerving psychological state brewing under the surface, like a volcano on the verge of a destructive, yet quiet eruption. She’s lost all sense of personhood in the tight grasp of this domestic tyrant. The actress operates with despondency, her limited energy complementing the film’s overall unhurried pace.

That torturous sentiment is only exasperated by encounters with a sadistic man claiming to be a police officer, for which a trigger warning is in order. Along the way, the plot positions Yana in situations that point to a new chapter but eventually sink her further in despair and worthlessness. In one of the movie’s most enrapturing moments, Yana lays peacefully on the grass with her eyes closed while the light of twilight glows on her, perhaps musing on what could have been or still could be. This is the only time a smile crosses her face. It’s a long, nearly still shot, one that captures a renewed hope that soon vanishes.

As David and Yana’s already chaotic marriage further deteriorates in the wake of a bombshell revelation from him and an inconceivable realization for her, Yana reaches a mental breaking point. The inconspicuously brilliant Sukhitashvili finally allows her character to crumble, but at the cost of cataclysmic repercussions. Kulumbegashvili’s study on manipulation shows Yana as a victim of a man who has forced her to abandon every ounce of herself, only to be rebuilt into a tool for the advancement of his career aspirations. In turn that vulnerability makes her the prey of others exploiting their family’s need for a façade of holiness.

Like Abraham, Yana sees destruction as the sole path for atonement, to appease the man who thinks himself a deity in his own makeshift paradise that’s anything but. The filmmaker takes Yana’s inner battle between what is expected to believe and what she actually believes to shocking extremes. “Beginning” stays on a cerebral plane even at its most ravaging and emotionally intense.