★★★★☆

Beginning is, in many respects, an astonishing film in its assured austerity, confidence and evident lack of compromise. More astonishing, perhaps, that it is Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili’s debut feature. There are hints of Kiarostami, Bergman and even Tarkovsky in its moments of psychological surrealism, yet rarely if ever does Beginning feel derivative of those masters.

The film’s defining feature is its extended static sequences, often shot in extreme wide shots with its subjects in the far distance, dwarfed by negative space. The opening scene, inside a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in the midst of a sermon, situates the camera at the back the building as we look on from afar. We are closest to a group of boys lined up against the near window in punishment.

Is there an association between their unseen transgressions, and our own, intruding as we are on this ceremony? We certainly feel as powerless as they do when moments later, the Hall is firebombed by unseen assailants. The ensuing chaos, set to the wrenching screams of the children, is as loud as the film ever gets, but far from the most disturbing.

Luckily, all the occupants make it out alive but our sense of powerlessness pervades the rest of the film, as cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan keeps his camera pulled as far back from the action as possible. Even in the relative intimacy of interior scenes, his wide lenses distort small spaces into caverns, while the 3:4 aspect ratio bissects and erases characters from the frame. The effect is subtle but deeply felt: realising that familiar inserts, reverse shots and close ups would be comforting – or at least empowering – by involving us in some way with the action.

Instead, Khachaturan and Kulumbegashivili force us to look on helplessly and statically. The irony is that this technique puts us in exactly the position of Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), wife to David (Rati Oneli), the community’s religious leader, who suffers a horrible assault at the halfway point in the film. There are moments, too, of poetic beauty – an extended shot above Yana as she lies next to her impatient son on the lushly-carpeted floor of their local forest is captivating in its stillness and the film’s final shot dips into pure surrealism, even if its actual implications are a little opaque.

Beginning’s pace, its subject matter and the manner in which it tells its story are likely to infuriate many; there is certainly room to argue that among its arthouse stylings, it doesn’t have much depth of thought about its themes of religion, family, sexual assault or systems of power. Nevertheless, as a purely aesthetic cinematic experience, Beginning will surely number among the best of the year.

Christopher Machell