A folk tale turns existential in “You Will Die at Twenty,” the rapturous debut feature by the Sudanese filmmaker Amjad Abu Alala. In a sun-dappled village by the Nile, a holy sheikh tells Sakina (Islam Mubarak) that her newborn son, Muzamil, will live only two decades.
The prophecy becomes too heavy a cross for their family to bear: Muzamil’s father soon abandons them, admitting softly to Sakina that he isn’t as strong as her. She’s left to raise their son alone, condemned to misery by her unshakable belief. Dressed in all black even while Muzamil is alive, she counts down his days on the walls of their hut. “Has sadness become a habit?” a fellow villager asks her.
Alala deepens this simple, fable-like premise into a lyrical confrontation with the certitudes of faith and the life-giving powers of doubt. Raised strictly religious, Muzamil (a wonderfully sensitive Mustafa Shehata) goes through his 20th year dourly awaiting his fate, ignoring even the romantic attentions of his beautiful friend Naima (Bunna Khalid). Until, one day, he meets Uncle Sulaiman (Mahmoud Elsaraj), a wealthy drunk who has returned to the village after many years abroad. An archetypal tough-loving father figure, Sulaiman introduces our unworldly hero to movies, art and women. To never sin is to never truly know piety, he suggests.
As Muzamil’s convictions begin to unravel, the movie’s ravishing compositions imbue the setting with the shimmer of myth. Dust-flecked beams of sunlight slice through shadows; green-robed dervishes glide down the Nile in boats; the turrets of a mosque pierce a startling blue sky. Avoiding didactic conclusions or pat answers, Alala’s film questions blind belief but finds boundless enchantment in every frame.
You Will Die at Twenty
Not rated. In Arabic, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. Watch at virtual cinemas through Film Movement.