This Is Not a Burial, Its a Resurrection is streaming on Mubi.

Among the many surprises in the third feature-length work by Mosotho filmmaker and artist Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese is its mid-film shift in scope. What begins as a tightly focused and often harrowing exploration of one woman’s grief opens out into a wider portrait of a community steeped in the same woes yet fired up by the potential for resistance and renewal suggested in the film’s title. Though it’s so thoroughly suffused with death that it’s hard to call This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection hopeful, Mosese’s extraordinary feature bristles with vitality and intensity.

Those qualities are in part generated by a daring visual sensibility and the mix of harsh electronics, abrasive strings and African musical elements in the score by the Berlin-based composer and sound artist Yu Miyashita, aka Yaporigami. Yet the most formidable source is Mosese’s lead performer: South African actress Mary Twala Mhlongo – one of the few professionals in a cast largely comprised of residents of Ha Dinizulu, the mountain community where the film was shot – makes Mantoa at once an emblem of incalculable suffering and a flaming torch of ferocity.

Through the claustrophobic first hour, she risks seeming too mythic, as if she and the film might slide into the more oneiric spaces occupied by the ghostly, grief-shattered characters in Pedro Costa’s Horse Money (2014) and Vitalina Varela (2019).

The dreamlike qualities are heightened by the somewhat superfluous narration by a lesiba player who perches in a corner of a crepuscular, Lynchian bar (a lesiba produces a buzzing sound from a quill and a piece of string stretched over a stick).

This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection (2019)

Despite many moments of hallucinatory abstraction, Mosese grounds the tragic figure of Mantoa in political, historical and ecological conditions of which he’s keenly aware. His family has suffered the kind of displacement portrayed here, the result of the Highlands Water Project that has decimated villages and forests in Lesotho in order to divert the tiny kingdom’s water to South Africa.

Anger and frustration at the false promises of promoters of ‘progress’ are palpable as the village chief sells the government plan to his soon-to-be-displaced neighbours. “Today we’re knocking at the door of the modern world,” he tells them, adding, “I assure you it will all be worth it.”

The chief and the local Christian priest, played by Makhaola Ndebele and Tseko Monaheng, eventually have to acknowledge the hollowness of their pledges, made on behalf of power structures that persist long after the official demise of African colonialism. Their sorrows become yet more notes to the cinematic threnody composed by Mosese and his team, with Mantoa’s climactic show of fury and defiance providing a thrilling final flourish.

Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.