A story of grief as iron-willed as its star

Tribune News ServiceMary Twala Mthlongo in a scene from “This Is Not a Burial...”

“This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection” is an extraordinary social drama filmed in the Lesotho Province of South Africa. The director is Jeremiah Mosese, a young South African expatriate now living in Berlin. He tells the remarkable story of an unlikely rebel. She is an elderly woman who speaks out against plans to flood her village so the government can build a dam. The movie is about resilience and resistance, but it is also a harrowing account of channeling and mastering horrific grief. Mosese uses the emotional underpinning as a counterpoint to his unsentimental tone and hyperrealistic visual style. The script, which Mosese conceived and worked on, contains elements of death, loss, faith, family, tribal culture, song as a means of expression and the march of time. About progress, one of the village elders cries, “Every time I want to speak that word, I can’t! My tongue rolls backward in my mouth!”

At the center of this emotional crucible is Mantoa, an 80-year-old widow anticipating her son’s arrival for Christmas. Her hope is cruelly dashed when she learns he has been killed in a mining accident in South Africa. The movie is also about rage against corporate power; it’s suggested in almost every shot. Crushed by the death of her last remaining relative, Mantoa feels she is ready to die and begins to make arrangements for her own funeral. In one memorable scene, she pleads with the village’s cemetery manager to prepare her grave, for which she will pay handsomely. The man, shocked by an order to dig a grave for a living person, refuses: “I could not bear such a sin,” he tells her. When Mantoa hears of the dam project, she tries to stop it when no one else, not even the village chief, will stand in its way. She knows it means the village’s ancestors, buried in the cemetery, will be swept away. What is most interesting is that Mantoa doesn’t act out of a need for power; she wants to die with dignity and she doesn’t want the cemetery to be desecrated.

“This Is Not a Burial” is a vivid, crisply photographed work structured as a series of episodes united by the movie’s themes, and Mosese composes each shot with stunning balance and symmetry. Mantoa is played by one of the movie’s few professional actors, Mary Twala Mthongo, who appeared in the Nelson Mandela biopic “Long Walk to Freedom.” A narrator tells us that Mantoa, disgusted by futile conversation, has taken a vow of silence. When she does speak, it’s about the dam project; other than that, no words are necessary. The suffering Mantoa has endured is etched in her wrinkled face and reflected in that noble profile and hooded but piercing eyes. It’s an amazing performance that grows richer and more poignant as the film goes on. Sadly, Mary Twala died last year at the age of 80. This movie is her crowning achievement and a fitting epitaph for a woman seeking death with dignity.

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