Rating: ** ½
I just had a life-changing experience. It is called You Will Die At 20. It is Sudan’s first entry into the Oscars, and one that is likely to win over a jury sold on esotericism. This is an exhaustively moody piece of work, dark and devilish, imbued in a aura of doom and yet courageously optimistic in fighting off those forces that push backward societies deeper into superstition and blind faith.
The story of Muzamil(Musatafa Shehata) who is told by the village priest that he won’t live beyond 20, is saddening to the extreme. Director Amjad Abu Alala spares Muzamil none of the anxiety , frustration and fury of a young man who’s told he won’t get to experience all the joys of adult life.
The film is shot in stark open spaces suggesting an endless bleakness and desolation, and then it moves into a an asymmetrical room where Muzamil’s mother (Islam Mubarak) counts the days: not her own, her sons.Unable to bear the burden of the terrible prophecy, Muzamil’s father makes an early escape from the responsibilities of parenting , leaving the barren coast clear for Muzamil’s mother to raise him into imminent death.
For a theme so remarkably pensive, the mood of the work is upbeat rather than desolate. There are stretches of narrative where Muzamil learns the ways of the world outside from an iconoclastic traveler Sulaiman(Mahmoud Elsarraj) who drinks , fornicates and is clearly not a good Muslim. Muzamil’s introduction into this world of unconditional hedonism troubles the boy as it clashes with his rigid Islamic upbringing.
The young actor playing Muzamil is a first-timer. He gives us Muzamil’s conflicted agonized emotion unvarnished raw and real. The rest of the cast seems to abide by the film’s natural rhythms. These are actors who never learnt to act.
This ruggedly ruminative anti-melodrama is shot in shades of brown and grey and illumined by a feeling of the fading light in the late afternoon. For a country that doesn’t have a very rich cinematic history You Will Die At 20 is remarkably poised and polished in technique. Natural sounds and open landscapes are used to suggest the dilating dimensions of doom hovering over the hazy horizon.
For all its accomplishments, the film finally left me with a sense of incompleteness. It opens up wounds (of blind faith) that never healed. But doesn’t really know how to heal those wounds. We sense some bona fide emotions underlining every scene. We can even feel Muzamil’s mother denying herself those emotions that she feels for her son, knowing he would be snatched away from her. But we don’t feel the surge of emotions that we ought to feel for a boy whose societal environment and upbringing deny him his childhood and adolescence for an adulthood that some creepy soothsayer says he won’t have.
There is a very disturbing sequence where Muzamil’s face is caressed by a priest in a distinctly sleazy way , as the holy man suggests Muzamil come and spend his remaining days in pleasing the men of God. That hint of perversity says it all. We needed more such moments condemning the underbelly of blind faith and less meditation on pubescent mortality.