You Will Die at Twenty review – a parable about the dangers of blind faith

Sudan’s first Oscar entry, about a boy destined to die young, is warmed by compassion and gorgeous, dreamy imagery

‘You will die at 20.” That’s the death sentence handed down to a newborn baby at the start of this gentle, affecting Sudanese drama, the feature debut of director Amjad Abu Alala (and was Sudan’s first ever Oscar entry). The scene has a kind of intense, dreamy realism. A couple bring their baby son to a Sufi naming ceremony in the desert, and while a sheikh performs the blessing, a dervish in a green jalabiya sways in a trance. The crowd chants numbers, one for every year of the baby’s life. “One … two … three …” At the count of 20, the dervish falls into a faint. The sheikh confirms everyone’s gasps: the baby will die at 20. “God’s command is inevitable.”

The film is a parable about the dangers of blind faith in religion and authority, but it’s also warmly compassionate and accepting of human nature. After the ceremony, the baby’s father Alnoor (Talal Afifi) can’t cope; he leaves the village to work abroad, telling his wife, Sakina (Islam Mubarak), that she’s stronger, she’ll manage. And she does, dressed in black as if her son Muzamil is already dead; understandably, she becomes overprotective. Finally, when he’s a boy of six or seven with a soulful expressive face (played beautifully by Moatasem Rashed) she lets him go to school where he’s bullied and nicknamed “son of death” by the other boys.

Later as a teenager (now played by Mustafa Shehata), Muzamil is devoutly religious and doesn’t question his fate. Then his faith is cracked wide open by the arrival of Sulaiman (Mahmoud Elsaraj), a man from the village who has travelled the world and has come back to die. He drinks alcohol and introduces young Muzamil to cinema in scenes that possibly feel a bit familiar, though I found their tenderness irresistible. And there are some gorgeous images here, too, such as flecks of dust glimmering in beams of sunlight or banks of the Nile, which give the movie a kind of mythic otherworldliness.

• You Will Die at Twenty is released on ​​12 November in cinemas.


Cath Clarke

The GuardianTramp

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