Film Review: ‘You Will Die at Twenty’

Boasting a terrific visual sensitivity, this rare film from Sudan has a fable-like quality in its depiction of an isolated village where superstition constrains its people.

Amjad Abu Alala
Mustafa Shehata, Islam Mubarak, Mahmoud Elsaraj

Running time: 102 MIN.

The visual assurance of “You Will Die at Twenty” is the most immediately notable element of Sudanese director Amjad Abu Alala’s accomplished feature debut. Beautifully composed and boasting the kind of sensitivity to light sources and color tonalities usually ascribed to top photographers, the film lovingly depicts the remote east-central region of Sudan as a quasi-magical place of sand, sky and the colors of the Nile. The story, about a young man raised to believe an unfortunate event at his birth has condemned him to die at 20, generally has an equally clear-cut quality, simple in the telling yet matched to the pictorial tenor. Some may find a clash between its fable-like guilelessness and other moments when the outside world’s cynicism breaks in, yet the film remains a touching, nonjudgmental depiction of people circumscribed by superstition. Festival play is assured.

This pocket of Sudan is both life-giving, situated between the Blue and the White Nile, and pitiless in its desert harshness. After giving birth to a baby boy, Sakina (Islam Mubarak) goes to have him blessed; during a religious ceremony, a dancer counting off in a trance stops on the number 20 just when the sheikh gives his benediction. “God’s command is inevitable,” the old man says, and everyone takes it as a sign that the child will die at 20. The pressure on the family is terrible, and Sakina’s husband, Alnoor (Talal Afifi), leaves to find work abroad, unable to cope with the sadness of knowing his only child won’t live to reach full manhood.

The boy, Muzamil (Moatasem Rashid), is raised knowing his fate, taunted by other kids as the “son of death.” Sakina, overprotective, keeps him out of school as if she can somehow stave off fate, yet she never questions its inevitability. Muzamil, however, wants to learn, and as a teen (Mustafa Shehata) he’s allowed to go to a new sheikh for instruction in the Quran. Abu Alala includes an unfortunate scene here, in which the religious man has Muzamil remove his top, then praises his beauty while stroking his torso and telling him to come regularly for instruction. The problem isn’t the homoeroticism or the implication of sexual abuse, but that the director doesn’t do anything with it — the scene has no repercussions and the clear inference is subsequently ignored as if it never happened.

Muzamil turns out to be excellent at memorizing and learns the Quran by heart. He’s also working for the village shopkeeper, delivering bootleg alcohol to Sulaiman (Mahmoud Elsaraj), a cynical man returned after years abroad who’s shacking up with wise prostitute Set Alnesea (Amal Mustafa). Sulaiman is the catalyst for Muzamil to question his fate and his surroundings, introducing him to cinema and the notion of a world outside. The character is a little too familiar, the use of cinema as a way of opening Muzamil’s eyes a bit too much like a first film device on the part of the director, and yet Abu Alala just makes it work, as images of Hind Rustum from “Cairo Station” (the influence of Youssef Chahine is obvious) introduce the young man to freewheeling female sexuality, and Jadallah Jubara’s shots of Khartoum in the 1970s reveal a different Sudan from the one crushed by dictatorship and fundamentalism.

These scenes sit oddly with the continued fatalism of Sakina and her son, the former consciously evoking the Virgin Mary in her position as a mother aware that her child is destined to die young (there’s even a pietà tableau). The parallel feels forced, and Sakina has no trajectory in which she questions the superstitions that have kept her doleful and static. Even more uncertain is the way Abu Alala uses the character of Naima (Bunna Khalid), a radiant young woman inexplicably in love with Muzamil. If she’s not merely sorry for him, the script needs to give a sense of why these two disparate personalities would be a good romantic match outside of Naima’s pure likability.

Despite these provisos, “You Will Die at Twenty” remains an affecting work and an impressive first feature thanks in great part to its splendid visual design. Together with cinematographer Sébastien Goepfert, the director presents a world of sharp contrasts, where dream-like shots of religious votaries floating down the river, or conical shrines piercing the solid blue sky, are contrasted with a dark interior pierced by shafts of light, such as the room where Sakina marks off the days of Muzamil’s life. A dream scene of the young man resting his head on his father’s stomach, light coming in from a window in the background, is a model of composition.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'You Will Die at Twenty'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Venice Days), Aug. 29, 2019. (Also in Toronto Film Festival.) Running time: 102 MIN. (Original title: “Satamoto Fel Eshreen”)

Production: (Sudan-France-Egypt-Germany-Norway-Qatar) An Andolfi, Transit Films, Duofilm, Die Gesellschaft DGS, Station Films, Film Clinic, Canal Plus International, Sunnyland Films, The Cell Post Prod. production. (Int'l sales: Pyramide Int'l, Paris.) Producers: Arnaud Dommerc, Hossam Elouan, Ingrid Lill Høgtun, Michael Henrichs. Co-producers: Amjad Abu Alala, Mohammed Alomda, Linda Bolstad Strønen, Marie Fuglestein Lægreid, Mohamed Hefzy.

Crew: Director: Amjad Abu Alala. Screenplay: Yousef Ibrahim, Abu Alala, based on a short story by Hammour Ziada. Camera (color, widescreen): Sébastien Goepfert. Editor: Heba Othman. Music: Amine Bouhafa.

With: Mustafa Shehata, Islam Mubarak, Mahmoud Elsaraj, Bunna Khalid, Talal Afifi, Amal Mustafa, Moatasem Rashid, Asjad Mohamed, Rabeha Mahmoud. (Arabic dialogue)

More Film

  • U.K. Freelancers

    U.K. Government Faces Pressure From Industry on Economic Measures for Freelancers

    The U.K. government is facing increasing pressure from the creative industries after it emerged that economic measures set out for the self-employed last week by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak have yawning gaps in them. The measures may have come as a welcome move for many creative industries workers, but not all are eligible [...]

  • Mare

    'Mare': Film Review

    In Dubrovnik, as everywhere, the wealthy do not live near the airport — so much noise, so much traffic, so many planes overhead stealing sections of cloudless blue sky. Instead, the airport’s depressed, cracked-concrete environs are occupied by blue-collar families like the one at the heart of Andrea Staka’s third feature (after “Cure” and 2008’s [...]

  • San-Sebastian

    San Sebastian, Zurich to Take Up SXSW, Tribeca Titles at Newly Created Film Markets

    The San Sebastian and Zurich film festivals have teamed to launch new film markets that will cater to the gaps created by the cancellation of SXSW and the postponement of Tribeca due to the coronavirus pandemic. The programming of both fall festivals will feature titles originally scheduled for spring fests SXSW and Tribeca. The markets [...]

  • Coronavirus Placeholder COVID19 Variety

    Japan's Toei Closes Tokyo Studio After Coronavirus Infection

    Toei closed its Tokyo studio Tuesday after actor Reo Komiya was diagnosed with the coronavirus. The star of the “Mashin Sentai Kiramager,” a sci-fi/action show broadcast on the TV Asahi network, seventeen-year-old Komiya tested positive for the virus while shooting new episodes at the studio. His condition is not known at the present time. A [...]

  • Aqute Media Takes North America on

    Aqute Media Takes North America on Helen Reddy Biopic 'I Am Woman'

    London-based sales agent WestEnd Films has closed a North American deal with Jeff Sackman and Berry Meyerowitz’s company Aqute Media for “I Am Woman,” the biopic about Australian singer Helen Reddy. The film had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival as the opening film of the Special Presentations section. The film also recently [...]

  • Sundance Film Festival Placeholder

    Sheffield Doc/Fest Rejigs With Fall Programming, Virtual Forums in Lieu of Festival

    The Sheffield Doc/Fest pitching forums, MeetMarket and Alternate Realities Talent Market are to take place virtually in June, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The rest of the June festival is being replaced by a series of programs that will take place on weekends through the fall. The planned programming will include film screenings, talks, panels, [...]

  • Southland Tales

    Streamer Mubi Partners With Prada Foundation on 'Perfect Failures' Film Series

    Specialist streaming service Mubi has teamed up with fashion label Prada’s Fondazione Prada foundation on “Perfect Failures,” a curated selection of movies deemed to have been “widely misunderstood” upon their release. The joint project will launch on both the Mubi platform and the Fondazione Prada’s website on April 5 with U.S. director Richard Kelly’s 2006 flop [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content