Georgia and Ukraine's Oscar Submissions Are Probably Better Than the Eventual Winner
Beginning and Atlantis should be on your shortlist.
If this year sees even a handful of films as beautifully shot as Beginning, it won’t have been a total bust. Dea Kulumbegashvili’s debut as writer/director opens with a long take inside a church that begins with a sermon about why Abraham was asked to sacrifice his only son and ends with a firebombing — the first of several scenes in which Kulumbegashvili and cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan dare us to look away from something as horrific as it is visually arresting. 35mm camerawork like this is a reminder that movies shouldn't look like real life; they should look like movies, grain and all.
Crises of faith have provided the narrative engine of many a worthwhile film, from Winter Light to First Reformed, and Beginning makes a righteous addition to that particular canon. It follows Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), a Jehovah’s Witness whose devotion to her cause is shaken in the bombing’s aftermath — it’s pointless to talk, she insists to just about everyone who tries, because the police know who carried out the act and are refusing to do anything about it. A crisis of faith isn’t just a crisis of faith when your beliefs provide the bedrock of your very existence, and watching Yana try to build herself back up again proves quietly compelling throughout.
Atlantis opens with a title card informing us that it’s set in “2025, a year after the war,” which raises an obvious question: what war? Valentyn Vasyanovych’s slow-burning drama with hints of sci-fi makes a habit of providing just enough detail to pique our interest and ensure that we’re giving the film our undivided attention. It’s an effective strategy: Ukraine’s Oscar submission bounces from military exercises and steel plants to minefields and burning cars, always with a sense of mystery as to how we arrived there and where we’ll be taken next. (There are also a few autopsies of badly decayed, disturbingly real-looking corpses, in case you were wondering whether this one is for the faint of heart.)
Anyone with a passing familiarity with Ukraine’s recent goings can likely guess which real-world events inform this fictional landscape, but Atlantis is more than a thinly veiled allegory. And though the earthy, monochrome color palette and slow pace make it easier to admire from afar than it is to pore over every detail, it’s still difficult to watch the credits roll without looking forward to seeing what Vasyanovych does with his next canvas.