Thursday 28 January 2021

Bad faith: "Beginning"

There seems to have been a small but notable flourishing in Georgian cinema, as far as one can make out from the films that have landed on these shores in recent times: 2013's In Bloom and 2017's My Happy Family, from the directorial partnership who bill themselves as Nana and Simon, were very skilfully poised on that generic border where domestic drama meets thriller. Beginning - feature debut of writer-director Dea Kulumbegashvili, bowing on MUBI this weekend - is far narrower in its scope than either of those pathfinders, composed as it has been in a recognisably rigid, prescriptive arthouse style that presumably explains why it was selected to compete at last year's cancelled Cannes festival. You'll be getting - enduring? - all of the following: a taut, unyielding Academy ratio frame; extended takes and sequence-shots that routinely go on longer than any incident contained within them; and a general air of glumness that would be tough to take at any time, but doubly so in the pandemic present. Carlos Reygadas - hawks, spits - is credited as an executive producer, and Beginning is, you feel, exactly the form and content to which Carlos Reygadas would be attracted: the sorry tale of a young Jehovah's Witness couple who find both their faith and their marriage tested in the wake of witnessing their church being firebombed. Assisted in their suffering by Georgia's least efficient fire brigade - who let this tiny place of worship burn all day and night for the sake of several bleakly picturesque compositions - the couple attempt to start anew, only to befall one misfortune after another. It's a latter-day religious parable, only - and here, for better and mostly worse, is where the Reygadas heavy touch becomes apparent - one that features the kind of language and atrocities they don't teach you in Sunday school.

Beginning is strikingly composed and rehearsed: it has to be, given the nature of some of those atrocities. Yet like a lot of films by young filmmakers who've seen a lot of films (and a lot of the New Extreme Cinema, in particular), it appears, scene by scene, utterly removed from life as it's actually experienced by real, non-movie, flesh-and-blood people; from first frame to last, we're watching terrible things happening to crash-test-dummy characters in one of those rigorously self-sealed art-movie vacuums. That firebombing, never followed up, is really no more in the film's grand design than a screenwriter's inciting incident, something to get the bad times rolling. In order to shoot a protracted rape scene - a must-have item for this kind of cinema - Kulumbegashvili has to set her heroine to wandering around a rocky riverbank in the middle of the night with not a hint of motivation for her to be doing so. Were it not for the sounds of this babbling brook, I fear you could hear Reygadas stood on the sidelines of the shoot, cheering all parties on. That's it, smear one another's faces and bodies with grime! Threaten to bash each other's brains out! Degradation, fuck yeah! For just over two hours, Beginning is shit being heaped, with no particular energy or empathy, on characters and viewer alike; the remaining ten minutes offer a very trite counterbalance, in which the juniors of the couple's church are presented - with a crude simplicity typical of the project as a whole - as paragons of innocence and hope. I've seen the occasional word of praise for Kulumbegashvili's film from representatives of Festival Twitter, eternal suckers for punishment such as they are, but this was one of those beginnings that looked to these eyes very much a dead end.

Beginning streams from tomorrow via MUBI.

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