The stark desert north of Sudan is realistically and beautifully captured in Amjad Abu Alala’s “You Will Die at Twenty,” a potent parable for life in this war torn and timelessly backward corner of the world.
A Sudanese entry in the Best International Feature category at the Oscars, this 2019 film, shot under stresses one can only imagine, earns a virtual release from Film Movement this month.
A mother (Islam Mubarak) takes her newborn boy to be blessed by a visiting Imam as he greets the faithful at a nearby mosque. As dervishes whirl in celebration, the leader counts up as this blessing is granted. When the dervish drops dead at the number “twenty,” a chill falls over the occasion and gasps spread through the crowd.
“Everything is fated,” the Imam intones (in Arabic with English subtitles) and mother Sakina protests and cries. The Imam can’t lift “the curse.” “God’s command is inevitable.” Her son, named Muzamil, will die at twenty.
Devout Sakina accepts this fate. But the boy’s father (Talal Afifi) is crushed. He will leave for the city and send home money. He will not let himself be there for the coming tragedy, which he doesn’t realize begins years before that fated day.
A little boy growing up in an isolated, superstitious village, whose own mother buys into his prophesied death, is going to have it rough.
His madrassa classmates are murderously cruel, covering him in ashes, wrapping him in a burial cloth and locking him in a trunk. His mother, marking dates on a wall of their house, never lets him forget how he can expect “such a short lifespan,” pushing him deep into memorizing the Quran as comfort and perhaps a stay of execution.
Only little Naima befriends him and loves him. And as the years pass and Muzamil (Mustafa Shehata) reaches his 19th year, Naima (Bonna Khalid), from a wealthier family, adds a new pressure to his fearful, overly careful life.
“Either you are scared of me or you love me,” she declares. And boy, you’d better make up your mind up fast.
This is just the moment that the kid, a delivery boy for the local store, meets an outspoken apostate. Sulaiman (Mahmoud Maysara Elsaraj) gets his Aragy (vodka) dropped off each day, a former world traveler who prefers to keep an anti-Islamic buzz on now that he’s passing his final years in the village of his birth.
Sulaiman is profane, dismissive of this superstitious nonsense, suggesting the boy “follow the Nile” to a bigger, better life where everybody doesn’t expect him to die any day now.
Sulaiman lives in a house of cluttered wonders — film cameras, projectors and erotic posters of Middle Eastern film stars of the pre-Islamic Fundamentalism past. That photo of Marilyn Monroe?
“She is from another world.”
Sulaiman can’t help but broaden the boy’s mind, showing him scenes of the secular classic “Cairo Station” and footage he shot of pre-Islamic coup Khartoum. Sulaiman is the film’s slice of “Cinema Paradiso.” He used to be a news cameraman.
Director Alala, who co-adapted the script from a short story by Hammour Zaida, carefully maintains the sundrenched cloud Muzamil lives under, a cloud his mother cultivates.
The performances are documentary real, with just enough melodrama about them to keep things interesting.
We don’t know what will come as that fateful “20th” is counted down, etched on the wall, with Muzamil feeling a growing pressure to escape, lash out in protest or tempt fate by taking risks at the crushing weight of ugly expectations his neighbors, his mother and his religion have set upon his shoulders.
An ugly, patriarchal and sexist moment in the film’s problematic finale promises little relief from that. There’s little chance of the “Cinema Paradiso” bittersweet entering the picture.
But Alala has still made a remarkable film of religious overtones and undertones (even a New Testament touch), of martyrdom and resignation that we can only hope Muzalil and indeed Sudan eventually reject for a fuller life.
Rating: unrated, violence, profanity
Cast: Mustafa Shehata, Islam Mubarak, Mahmoud Maysara Elsaraj, Bonna Khalid and Talal Afifi
Credits: Directed by Amjad Abu Alala, script by Amjad Abu Alala and Yousef Ibrahim, based on a short story by Hammour Zaida. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:46