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'This Is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection' is a monumental film, and it's the best of the year

The old woman has lost all use for God. Her son has just died, following her husband, her daughter, and her granddaughter. And now, she simply wants to die too, to join them, feeling there was never any point to it anyway. As she tells the local priest of his own deceased wife, “She will die over and over again for the rest of your life. That’s grief. A senseless suffering. There’s no meaning to it.”

She does find a meaning, though, or at least a purpose, in this awe-inspiring film with the breathtaking title, This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection. It comes to us from Lesotho, that small independent country landlocked within South Africa, and stars the late Mary Twala, who gives a searing, fierce performance as she begins to fight for her small village that is about to be displaced by “progress,” with the government seeking to flood the area and build a dam. She fights, though, not so much for the village to maintain its way of life, but to maintain its deaths—to move the village means either to dig up the graves of all who’ve passed, or to let them be washed away. Neither option lets the dead maintain their dignity, nor do they give her the dignity of the death she desires. And in a way, she is holding fast to the tradition of the village, which is a tradition of death—it was founded centuries before when migrants fleeing a plague were forced to bury their dead in that land, and rather than leave them, they stayed.

The story is told to us from sometime in the future by a man playing a lesiba, an unusual instrument very specific to the area, one of many touches that ground the film in its location. We often cut from him back to Twala, whose small body and wrinkled face and hands hold a remarkable fire. Each frame of the film is rigorously composed, with Twala positioned exactly so, sometimes in the center in near-close-up, sometimes in the very corner with the sweeping hills and mountains around her and the creeping progress behind her. And every second of what we see is miraculous, with mists barreling in through the trees, candlelight flickering against the wall, and colors that make us wonder if we’ve ever even seen them before.

This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection is a monumental, towering film, one that legitimately stands with the all-time greats of world cinema. It’s philosophically, spiritually, and historically enormous, with existential themes sitting alongside African storytelling traditions, and indictments of colonialism and cultural destruction expressed with astonishing images and artistry. And though we know from the beginning how it will all turn out, we learn this is a resurrection of a people, with voices crying out that will be heard.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.