At the beginning of “This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection,” two unthinkable catastrophes are about to be revealed to Mantoa (Mary Twyla Mhlongo), an elderly widow in a rural Lesotho village.
The first is that her son has been killed in the South African mines. The second is that her entire village will soon be underwater: A new hydroelectric dam is in the works, and Mantoa, her neighbors, their ancestral farms and grazing lands, and even their dead are all in the way of progress.
But Mantoa, fueled by grief and rage, becomes a dissident leader in “Resurrection,” written and directed by Berlin-based Mosotho filmmaker Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese. Filmed on location in remote Lesotho, “Resurrection” is a haunting, visually dazzling, and masterfully crafted parable about grief, power, and human relation with the land. It streams via PMA Films, and is not to be missed.
Mantoa’s story is narrated from a very different setting than the pastoral one where it takes place. In fact, the film’s first moments bring us inside what looks like an abandoned industrial space-turned-hangout, dimly lit in gold tones laced with smoke. The camera slowly pans over people in the shadows drinking, smoking, and nodding to the dissonant music played by an old man (Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha) on a tapered horn.
In a gravelly voice, the musician – our narrator – tells of the village of Nasaretha: “If you place your ear to the ground, you can still hear the cries and whispers of those who perished under the flood.”
And then we cut to a bright, spacious, wide shot of a blue sky milky with clouds, mountains at a distance, and sheep being herded slowly down a green-lined path into the foreground. This is Nasaretha, on the day when Mantoa expects to welcome her son home and will instead find her world beginning to end.
Mantoa’s grief is quiet, bitter, and all-consuming in ways that the film makes impressionistic and vividly sensual. When the priest (Makhaola Ndebele) tries to comfort her from outside her house, a choir in black and white behind him, we cut from him to Mantoa in the dim interior: the profile of a small woman, head wrapped in a black scarf, gaze distant and mouth slack, sitting before a wall of startling cobalt-blue. The priest pauses. We can just barely hear her breathing.
Such contrasts and formal elegance are among the many pleasures of “Resurrection.” Shot by shot, the film’s cinematography (by Pierre de Villiers) and production design (Leila Walter) are breathtaking, and Mosese’s editing maintains a slow-burn pace energized by its juxtapositions.
Mantoa ululates alone in the village graveyard of small red stones, and suddenly the whole village appears down the slope to grieve and sing. As Mantoa and a young woman pick herbs in a vast field of pink flowers, dam engineers in yellow helmets slowly invade the middle ground. After a devastating fire, we look down from above at Mantoa sitting on her bed frame surrounded by pale-blue ash, dark charred rubble, and hints of her cobalt walls. Slowly, surreally, white sheep enter, filling the frame.
As the villagers come together behind Mantoa, “Resurrection” lingers in simple scenes of their work and play: A close-up of hands sloughing dark seeds from a sunflower husk, delighted children rippling through the fields for hide-and-seek, a raucous ululation-filled sheep-shearing contest, townspeople crowded around a table civilly debating exactly how poetic they should make their letter of protest to the King.
The ensemble, which aside from the few lead roles is made up entirely of non-actor local residents, brings a subtle but sure sense of the town’s ethos and cohesion, and the tender universality of their images lends the town’s story at once an intimate specificity and a sense of the mythic.
That story progresses with a slow but unmistakably unyielding momentum, and at the center of its urgency is the stunning Mary Twyla Mhlongo. The late South African television and film actress is a force and a phenomenon, searing in her nuance. With her stoicism, she brings new grief, incredulity, disdain, or rage to every shift of her brow or downturned lip, every sigh, and side-long stare. When Mantoa’s stony face finally melts into desperate sobs and cries – and as she commits to her remarkable final act – it’s hard not to feel the catharsis bloom in our own throats.
Of course, we know that Mantoa and her neighbors will not stop the dam. Our musician-storyteller told us so up front, from his smoky warehouse lair that seems to be so wrenchingly far from Nasaretha. This narrative framing lends “Resurrection” a sense of the epic, and Mosese’s writing, restrained and rife with symbols, gives it both the poetry and the authority of a fable. We watch not to see what will happen, but how it will happen – and, perhaps more importantly, how its story will be shaped and what it will mean.
Although Mantoa and her neighbors have no power to stop the colonialist, industrialist, and bureaucratic forces that have aligned to flood their town, they do have the power to reclaim the narrative. “This is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection” seems to suggest that how the story’s end is told could have vital bearing on what stories might happen next.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
• Maya Williams is a powerful poet and luminous presence across the Portland arts community. On Friday, April 2, at 7:30 p.m., Mad Horse Theatre presents a virtual evening with her and her work. In “Judas and Suicide,” Williams performs and discusses poems that explore “suicidality and mental health through the lens of faith, medication, and healing.” Tickets for the performance, which also includes art by Buff Cat, are available at madhorse.com.
• Need a Broadway musical fix? Good Theater typically produces an evening of Broadway tunes each season, and they’ve just put one online: “Broadway at Good Theater – The 1990s, Part One.” It features more than a dozen singers, who recorded (safely) at St. Lawrence Arts and in Los Angeles over several weeks and includes songs from “The Boy From Oz,” “State Fair,” “Rent,” “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” “Chicago,” “The Secret Garden,” “Ragtime,” and more. FMI: goodtheater.com.
• The final installment of Portland Stage Company’s Little Festival of the Unexpected is Benjamin Benne’s “In His Hands,” about an unlikely relationship between an atheist and an aspiring Lutheran pastor. It gets a workshop reading April 9, at 7 p.m. FMI: portlandstage.org.
• Finally, I really can’t stress strongly enough that you should check out the recording and digital archive of Bare Portland’s beautiful, bonkers, brilliant “[STORAGE]” while you still can. It streams through April 14 via bareportland.org/.
— Megan Grumbling