The atheist argument against God’s existence goes a little like this: If God is benevolent, He has the desire to end suffering. If he’s omnipotent, He has the power to end it. If He’s both and He doesn’t, then he’s no God, and he therefore can’t exist. It’s the ol’ either-or conundrum, carried out in art throughout human history, right up to the publication of Garth Ennis’ Preacher from the mid-90s to the early 2000s, or David Twohy’s Pitch Black. If God is real, it’s better we think of Him as a good guy helpless to stanch the bleeding. Otherwise, he’s just a prick.
In Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s extraordinary new film This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, God isn’t present, probably because the sheer volume of suffering visited upon its protagonist alone is enough to make Him feel sheepish. Mantoa (Mary Twala Mhlongo), a widow in the Lesotho village of Nasaretha—so named by missionaries who, ages ago, came through the region in blissful ignorance of its history—is alone. Her son, her last living relative, has died in a mining accident. Her husband died years prior, as well as her daughter, and her grandchild. Mantoa’s life is the definition of bereft. No amount of well-wishes or condolences can ease her pain. And then the Lesotho government decides to build a dam on her mountain hamlet and flood the place out. At least they have a plan to displace the villagers. (Your shock of the day: This is actually a real thing.)
But they don’t put much thought into the bodies buried beneath the earth. The tally is so high and reaches so far back that the land’s true name is “the plains of weeping,” which, in the thinnest of silver linings, feels like an appropriate appellation given the atmospheric tragedy of Mosese’s film. This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection holds nothing back: Not aesthetics, not performance, not tone or sensation. Mosese composes his film as one part tone poem, one part scathing political critique, one part dirge and one part memorial, because death is a complex beast. Saying goodbye hurts, especially when you’re the last one left, like Mantoa. But This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, in between the sound of grief that’s somehow inchoate and eternal, finds the space to celebrate life through the marking of death.
At one point the villagers throw a party. Bread is shared among all. Songs are sung. An accordion makes its reedy, diatonic contribution to the festivities. It’s joyous. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen our village alive like this,” one woman remarks to Mantoa. “It might be short-lived, but we feel alive and it feels good!” Mosese realizes that he can’t depict death without engaging life, because the two are intrinsically bonded to each other. Unlike so many movies that confront mortality, This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection isn’t grief porn. It’s not as macabre as that. It is realistic about death, especially death felt in a part of the world so overlooked by its own reigning authorities, and in being realistic, it might be mistaken as a misery-fest.
Yes, This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection is constitutionally sad. It’s also angry, restrained, abandoned, exuberant when cracks open between its downward facing emotions, and, above all else, impeccably constructed. Mosese favors a natural palette interrupted by bursts of blue (blue ponchos, blue shawls, blue drapes caressing beds) and textured images (needlepoint detailing, wrinkled skin, stubble, craggy outcrops). Lesotho’s mountains are beautiful enough that Mosese shows no urgent need to color over them. Instead he honors them through his framing and composition as cinematographer Pierre de Villiers holds the camera still, giving determined glances at breathtaking landscapes and vistas. That a place this lovely can contain so much sorrow is proof of human dispassionateness. The only people who care about Nasaretha’s plight are Nasaretha’s people, and Mantoa, whose misery may be greater than all the rest, emerges as their moral leader. She protests the government’s apathy and amorality. She reminds her friends and neighbors that the land they live on is the land where their loved ones are interred. They can no more leave the dead behind than the living.
There’s a Grecian quality to Mosese’s writing and filmmaking. He delicately links each scene together with narration from a nameless lesiba player (Jerry Mofokeng), who often makes himself known through monologues about history and the film’s current events, gently playing his country’s national instrument as punctuation to his words. Mokofeng is one of Mosese’s two constants alongside Mhlongo, who provides This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection with its steady, stoic heart. The film’s otherworldly near-surrealism, the product of the thought and intention driving it, is given grounding through their work. The fate threatening Nasaretha is unbelievable, even though history has a habit of driving people out of their homes, whether with water or highways. But Mhlongo, Mofokeng and Mosese make us believe—not in God, but in people, the highest power in a staggering movie about powerlessness.
Director: Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese
Writer: Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese
Starring: Mary Twala Mhlongo, Jerry Mofokeng, Makhaola Ndebele, Tseko Monaheng, Siphiwe Nzima
Release Date: April 2, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.