Landlocked by South Africa on all sides, the kingdom of Lesotho is a place of high skies, wide landscapes and narrow prospects for its two million inhabitants: a set of dimensions somehow captured in every exquisitely constructed, square-cut frame of “This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection.” A haunted, unsentimental paean to land and its physical containment of community and ancestry — all endangered by nominally progressive infrastructure — this arresting third feature from Lesotho-born writer-director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese is as classical in theme as it is adventurous in presentation. Toggling between earthy naturalism and suspended dream atmospherics as fluently as its life-weary 80-year-old protagonist (the superb Mary Twala Mhlongo) skims the real and spiritual realms, it’s the kind of myth-rooted, avant-garde Southern African storytelling that rarely cracks the international festival circuit.
An appearance in Sundance’s international competition — where it netted a special jury prize for “visionary filmmaking” — will significantly boost the profile of an uncompromising arthouse item that might otherwise struggle outside the festival hothouse. Mosese’s film initially premiered last year in the outlying Biennale College strand at Venice, a development scheme and showcase that has previously nurtured such offbeat standouts as Jorge Thielen Amand’s “La Soledad” and Anna Rose Holmer’s “The Fits.” Theatrical distribution is likely to be limited, but cinephile-oriented streaming outlets should pay attention to a film that seemingly draws equal inspiration from indigenous folklore and the rigorous aesthetics of Pedro Costa and Abderrahmane Sissako.
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“This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection” begins at its most cryptic, opening on a blurred, slowed image of a horse under attack by an armed tribesman, never contextualized in the ensuing narrative. From here, we segue to the film’s elliptically poetic framing device, as Pierre de Villiers’ camera completes a languid circular pan around a darkened shebeen, where a nameless narrator (Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha) plays the lesiba — a traditional Basotho instrument resembling a mouth harp — between strands of a monologue, reflecting on the history and fate of Lesotho’s Nazareth region, a largely unspoiled rural territory once named the “pains of weeping.” “The dead bury their own dead,” he intones: The implication that Nazareth is a community on borrowed time hangs in the thick air.
This obliquely theatrical, symbolism-riddled narration is the film’s least penetrable element: Once we get to the land itself, placidly shot by de Villiers in sandy pastels and bird’s-egg blues, the storytelling turns more elemental. When octogenarian widow Mantoa (Twala Mhlongo) loses the last of her children to a mining accident, she begins making arrangements to die herself, wrapping up her affairs and possessions in her small rondavel home, and seeking a local man to dig her a grave. Yet her plans for a peaceful passing are undone by a community crisis: Her village is given a resettlement order by the government, to accommodate a new reservoir set to be built over their existing homes — and, most woundingly of all, the gravesites of their ancestors.
With less to lose than most of her neighbors, and a spiritual heritage at stake that she’s soon set to join, Mantoa rouses herself from her isolating pall of grief to make a final earthly protest. Twala Mhlongo, a veteran South African supporting player from such titles as “Sarafina!” and “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” gets the film showcase of a lifetime here, her wiry body language alternately trembling with desolation and defiance, keeping Mantoa’s mission riveting even as it fails to unfold along standard procedural lines. Mosese’s script skips and glitches across stages of the process, as if in sync with the way Mantoa sees her own place in the world of the living: half in and half out. “This is not a death march: this is the march of the living and the dead,” narrates the lesiba player, an oddly diminishing presence as the film progresses; sure enough, “This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection” often seems to occupy the existential interstice implied by its title.
It’s a hushed, ambiguous reality enabled by unpredictable filmmaking. Jagged, irregular sound design mutes dialogue at key points, evoking the protagonist’s own frayed, muffled consciousness; it’s de Villiers’ rich, fertile lensing, so attuned to the landscape’s natural light and palette, that keeps us earthbound when we spin into magical-realist uncertainty. Rather than a precious affectation, the Academy-ratio framing constantly stresses the villagers’ lowly place in the ecosystem, with or without imminent construction work: it’s the tall, clean sky that dominates many of the compositions here, constantly beckoning Mantoa into its azure expanse.