This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection

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Synopsis

With a poet’s eye for place, light, and the spiritual dimensions of everyday existence, Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese crafts a meditation on the concept of homeland and a transcendent elegy for what is lost in the name of progress. Grieving and alone following the deaths of her husband and children, elderly Mantoa (Mary Twala Mhlongo, in a soul-shaking end-of-life performance) prepares for her own death and to be buried alongside her ancestors. When plans for a new dam near her village in the landlocked kingdom of Lesotho threaten to literally wash away all she holds dear, Mantoa takes a last stand, mobilizing her neighbors to fight for their land and their way of life. The experience of watching Mosese’s visionary, much-lauded This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection is as timeless and elemental as the land itself.

Picture 9/10

Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection receives a Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection and is presented with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode in its original aspect ratio of 1.40:1 (complete with rounded corners) on a dual-layer disc. The presentation is sourced from a 2K master.

The photography in Mosese’s film is extraordinary, capturing striking compositions around its characters and the Lesotho landscape with the taller framing making everything on screen feel so massive. It can all be quite overpowering, and Criterion’s high-def presentation does an extraordinary job of capturing all of it here. Mosese mentions in the included commentary and interview his fascination with textures through his photography, particularly on the hands or faces of his actors. It’s also clear that his eye for texture carries on through to buildings, clothing, and terrain. Those textures, whether from grit or wrinkles or mud or fabric, are gorgeously rendered with a staggering amount of clarity. The fine details pop, and nothing gets lost.

Another surprising aspect of the film is just how colorful it is; the frame is consistently loaded with blues, violets, reds, greens, and more, all featuring extraordinary saturation levels and a surprising vibrancy. Black levels are also immaculate and deep, with a vast amount range to be found in the shadows of the film’s darker scenes, which all help create depth.

The digital presentation in motion on a television screen is also outstanding, the encoding looking clean, though there are a couple of things that stick out that may have to do more with the photography. This Is Not a Burial was filmed digitally with a Sony CineAlta VENICE camera and completed through an entirely digital workflow (I assume it was filmed in 4k and finished in 2K), and this could be what leads to what one could call a “slight noisy” look. That “noise” often emulates film grain, rarely coming off as “buzzy” or blocky, with Criterion’s encode seeming to keep it all in check. I never found it distracting, and the film retains a photographic look that further leads to the disc's stunning end presentation. I thought it looked excellent.

Audio 8/10

The DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround presentation is a shockingly active one. Most of the film’s audio, including dialogue, is focused on the fronts, but there is a real effort to put the viewer into the center of the film's setting. You can pick up echoes in the environment through the surrounds, like when a person is whaling or yelling up to the hills or when a crowd is cheering on contestants in the village's sheep shearing competition. The wind and rainstorms come rushing in at times, and it all sounds like it’s coming from above. The film’s score is also sharply mixed around the viewer, with the subtle bass giving it a good kick.

It’s an incredibly effective surround presentation and probably the biggest surprise about the release.

Extras 8/10

On top of the film’s original trailer, Criterion also includes an audio commentary featuring Mosese and producer Cait Pansegrouw, which was recorded last year and sounds to have been conducted online. The two do an excellent job covering the film’s production, Mosese explaining the film’s origins and inspirations, a lot of which comes from his childhood when he lived in Lesotho. At the same time, the central theme and “plot” around disconnection and physical displacement sound, in part, to come from the filmmaker’s struggles that come from living in Berlin for a good portion of his adult life. It wasn’t surprising to learn that the main character (played by Mary Twala Mhlongo) was inspired by what he could recall about his grandmother.  These topics also lead to some contextualization around events and depictions within the film, along with details around the area where they filmed (an actual village) and how specific elements were recreated where needed. The two also share amusing stories around screenings (it sounds like some audience members thought the film featured “Wakanda blankets”) and share random events from the set, including what it was like to work with Twala Mhlongo.

As a track about the film’s production it’s terrific and satisfying but where the track can get a little bit frustrating is where a topic will come up only not to be expanded upon, which I’m sure has to do with the off-the-cuff nature of the track. In one example that led to an unsuccessful Google deep dive on my part, Mosese points out a scene where one of the characters is played by a filmmaker from Lesotho and mentions how this filmmaker inspired him. In what is clearly an oversight due to the subject being a segue from a conversation that Mosese and Pansegrouw were already having, Mosese doesn’t mention the filmmaker's name and only gives a brief description of the type of films he had directed before moving on. The topic of other regional films comes up in passing, but it’s rarely expanded on, and this slight frustration may have been alleviated through some academic addition to the release around the topic.

Alas, Criterion hasn’t included anything that could be considered "academic" outside of an essay by Zakes Mda found in the included insert, the author and professor getting a bit more into detail about Lesotho and the kingdom’s relationship to the rest of South Africa, a country dependent on its water source. He also goes over the poetic narrative and the film’s photography (with comments on Twala Mhlongo’s final performance) but doesn’t expand into other regional film works.

It’s an unfortunate oversight and a missed opportunity. Criterion makes up for it (a bit) by instead turning this release into almost a complete collection of Mosese’s work. Though overlooking his debut German film (2013’s For Those Whose God is Dead), the disc features all of his other Lesotho-focused films: 2014’s Mosonngoa (23-minutes), 2016’s Behemoth: Or the Game of God (12-minutes) and 2019’s Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You. (76 minutes). The director has also recorded a new 15-minute introduction for the films.

Interestingly, Criterion presents the films in reverse-chronological order. I suspect the filmmaker wants audiences to watch them this way based on the comments he makes in the introduction about how he essentially recreated himself after Mosonngoa. I’m not going to pretend to fully understand I Am Suffocating, described in the notes as “part poetic essay, part documentary." The director's comments are at least explicit in explaining that the film represents how he sees Lesotho and (possibly) Africa now as an outsider living in Europe, with the anger he feels expressed through the visuals. Mosese also talks about the poetry of the kingdom and tries to explain its language; I suspect I Am Suffocating is a visual representation of that. The same sense and style do end up carrying on through into This Is a Burial, though that feature is in no way as enigmatic.

Behemoth is stylistically similar to I Am Suffocating and appears to be constructed from both authentic and staged elements (and also in the ratio of 1.40:1) but feels to have a more apparent goal. The film follows a man, possibly a preacher, walking through populated areas while dragging a coffin behind him. He’ll stop and begin to perform sermons, though his comments seem to incite anger from the crowd who accuse him of blasphemy. The statement that seems to rile everyone up is about how “their God” is in the coffin he is dragging, and it all makes sense once the coffin is opened to reveal its contents.

The film is a little rough compared to the two that would follow. Still, he’s clearly experimenting and finding his voice after the very different and narratively straightforward Mosonngoa,  filmed in a scope ratio of around 2.39:1 and in color (the other two films are black-and-white). This film starts with the caption “inspired by true events” and focuses on a young woman who needs to quickly raise money to buy back her father’s cattle after they grazed on another villager’s land, meaning that the villager now owns them. She first tries to work longer in the fields, hoping to make more money (only to learn it doesn’t matter because field workers are paid by the day) before finally discovering the world of stick fighting. It has its experimental touches when it comes to editing the stick fighting sequences and such, but it is the most conventional film to appear on this disc, and it's easy to see why Mosese felt the need to step back and reexamine what he wanted to do.

It could be a better release when all is said and done, but getting most of Mosese's work together on one disc is a significant bonus. It also provides a beneficial and rewarding look into his journey and development as a filmmaker.

Closing

The lack of academic material is a little frustrating, but as a record of Mosese’s development as a filmmaker, it proves to be a rewarding release

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Year: 2019
Time: 122 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 1169
Licensor: Dekanalog
Release Date: January 24 2023
MSRP: $39.95
 
Blu-ray
1 Disc | BD-50
1.40:1 ratio
Sesotho 5.1 DTS-HD MA Surround
Subtitles: English
Region A
 
 New audio commentary featuring director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese and producer Cait Pansegrouw   Mosese’s short films Mosonngoa (2014) and Behemoth: Or the Game of God (2016), along with his 2019 essay film Mother, I Am Suffocating. This Is My Last Film About You., with a new introduction by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese   Trailer   An essay by novelist and playwright Zakes Mda