Sundance 2020: This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection

Rating: 3.5/4

Mantoa (Mary Twala Mlongo) knows tragedy. A widow, she’s lost her daughter and granddaughter in prior years. The only loved one she has left is her son, a miner. And in her tiny village, the people hail returning miners as Gods because of the perilousness of the job. When Mantoa learns of her son’s death, the news breaks her. She wishes for death. But when the government announces the forced relocation of her village to make way for a dam, which would require exhuming the dead, Mantoa discovers a newfound vigor. Through Mantoa’s plight, Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection urgently intertwines magical realism in a parable of grief and resilience, spoken in the language of Sesotho.

This is Not a Burial is a gorgeously shot film. Capturing the landlocked country (surrounded by South Africa) Lesotho through a Polaroid square ratio that observes the mountainous terrain with lyrical intent. Cinematographer Pierre de Villiers’ low-lit shots are compositionally reverent, like a 16mm slideshow from a different era. The look of the film more than contributes to the ethos of Mantoa’s preservationist struggle—as her Edenic country is encroached upon by greedy capitalists and bureaucrats. Moreover, the film opens with a gorgeous pan that scans across a blue-soaked club, where an elderly unnamed prophet narrates much of the action involving Mantoa. Mosese loves employing vibrant blues to counterintuitively denote mourning, but he also adores tableaus, like profile shots of Mantoa—which initially demonstrate her weariness but soon complement her burgeoning strength.         

In this respect, Mosese’s narrative thematically draws parallels to Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, but without its manic protagonist. Mantoa comes to despise the local priest (Makhaola Ndebele) and God. Partly because of what she’s lost, but also the willingness of the priest to acquiesce to those upending the village’s traditions. In some fashion, he represents the Christian colonizers from centuries of yore—those who first demolished a vibrant native culture—and a cyclical expression of outsiders claiming the land’s resources. Currently, Lesotho is locked in a struggle with South Africa. The larger country perpetually leans into forced displacement to harvest the tiny country’s rich water supply. 

In the face of Mantoa’s defiance—she rallies against the priest and the chief (Tseko Monaheng)—is her grief. Upon hearing of her son’s death, per tradition, she dons black clothing for mourning. Typically, one can only wear mourning attire for a select period of time, lest they be deemed “insane.” Mantoa shoots past that deadline. Her wearing the garb demonstrates her challenging the tribe’s customs, which try to make the illogical logical: grief. 

And as This is a Burial stretches on during its 113 minutes, unexplained events take place in the village. A home is burned down, a boy is killed. They appear to be the work of a vandal, or something more. Either way, the magical realism of the film turns upon loss: property, loved ones, traditions, and homelands. Throughout these tribulations, the 80-year old Mlongo delivers an astounding performance, wrapped in a devastating minimalism that’s emblematic of a country that’s lost much while awaiting the promise of progress. Mosese furthers this shared trauma, a personal story of transience for him, by using non-actors with respect to the local villagers. Often Mosese organizes his compositions by gradients, with villagers occupying varying hills, giving This is a Burial a three dimensional depth that intimates the deep connections between the people and their surroundings. And in the process, Mosese’s This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection becomes a parable of strength to a tiny country that’s often been left at the mercy of its encompassing neighbor. Beautiful, and powerfully crafted, This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection is the solidification of a new and compelling voice.

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