May 8, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘You Will Die at Twenty’ review: Sudan’s first Oscar submission

Sentenced to a brief existence as an infant, the juvenile in writer-director Amjad Abu Alala’s dazzling debut “You Will Die at 20,” the first-ever Sudanese Oscar entry for international feature film, holds little agency over how his scarce days on this mortal plane are utilized.

From its opening frame of a horse’s corpse in the desert, Abu Alala’s movie announces its mystical proposition, treading the space between the spiritual and the mundane. That idiosyncrasy is reassured when a sheik and his dervish predict young Muzamil will only survive two decades before passing on. It’s a divine mandate impossible to overturn, they say.

Isolated in childhood with an absent father (who ran away afraid of the curse), gentle Muzamil (played as a teenager by Mustafa Shehata) turns to religion determined to mine enlightenment from his unforgiving fate. At 19 with his time running its course, a bitter realization stabs him. He can’t plan for a future he’ll never have. He won’t marry the girl he’s always loved and who loves him back.

Abu Alala’s screenplay, co-written with Yousef Ibrahim and based on Hammour Ziada’s short story “Sleeping at the Foot of the Mountain,” pits the conflicted protagonist against opposing viewpoints on how to live. Permanently draped in black, as if mourning her only child while he is still breathing, his mother Sakina (Islam Mubarak) has renounced all hope. In short uncanny dreamscapes, cinematographer Sébastien Goepfert expounds her fears.

No cheap exoticism is in sight here, only striking depictions of a culture’s belief system — similar to those seen in another recent African standout “The Burial of Kojo”— as interpreted by a filmmaker who, though not born there, has roots in Sudan. In one scene, Sakina imagines herself holding the lifeless body of her boy in her arms.

The rival influence comes in decadent father figure Sulaiman (Mahmoud Elsarraj), a cosmopolitan man who has seen the world and all its charms but is now back in the traditional town. Innocent Muzamil, well versed in the Quran, appears wary of his ways but is soon won over with stories of movie stars and his first glimpse of the capital city of Khartoum preserved in old film reels. Too bad he won’t see it for himself.

As Muzamil’s convictions become challenged, a new outlook emerges from his disillusionment with an upbringing that groomed him for an early burial and the “corruptive” possibilities he’s discovered through a new friend. Instilling doubt about what he always thought to be truth is the story’s most provocative pronouncement.

Shehata, a first-time actor, brilliantly maps Muzamil’s transition from resignation to anger to defiance. The closer his final birthday inches, the more ardent his desire to make mistakes, to be an adult and to see places beyond the limits of his hometown. If his destiny is to come true, Muzamil refuses to depart without a taste of hedonistic pleasures. It’s a desperate attempt to spite the forces, whether earthly or holy, that condemned him.

With transcendent reflection, Abu Alala’s coming-of-age tale invites us to consider the notion of predestination. Are we just passing through waiting for the end to come or in constant pursuit of joie de vivre?

Abu Alala directs with deft ambition, even if the accumulation of plot points and characters sometimes weighs the film down. A vibrant and transfixing revelation, “You Will Die at 20” is as novel a vision as we may see this year. From its meaningful ideas on the here and the hereafter, its lesson for Muzamil is that after perishing a rebirth may follow.

‘You Will Die at 20’

In Arabic with English subtitles

Not Rated

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Playing: Available Jan. 22, Laemmle Virtual Cinema and other virtual cinemas