By Milan Perera, Arts Writer
You Will Die At Twenty is a curious juxtaposition of fable-like reverie and cynical religious orthodoxies. Amjad Abu Ali has put Sudan on the cinematic map with this tour de force which has already won multiple awards at various film festivals. In fact, it remains the only entry from Sudan in the history of the Academy Awards.
The story revolves around Muzamil who is given a death sentence even before he could start his life properly and is set in the hauntingly beautiful landscape between the Blue and White Nile up against the harshness of the dessert. The new-born baby, Muzamil is brought to a traditional Sufi naming ceremony where the sheikh prepares for the blessing. A whirling dervish draped in green is in a trance and starts counting; 1,2,3 and so on. At the count of twenty the dance of the dervish comes to an abrupt halt. There is no way to the change God’s command; the child is going to die at twenty.
With this hammer blow, the mother of the child, Sakina (played by Islam Mubarak) is donned in black as if she is already in mourning. Understandably she becomes overprotective of her son by trying to avert the divine will. Muzamil’s father leaves everything in the hand of Sakina and makes an escape with the poor excuse that she is stronger and hence able to cope with the situation. Sakina nevertheless sends young Muzamil to school much to his dread as the other boys bully him with name calling, son of death. The teenage Muzamil (played by Mustafa Shehata) devotes himself to the study of holy scriptures for which he shows an uncanny aptitude. His world of religious certitudes is rent asunder with the arrival of Suleiman (Mahmoud Elsaraj) who has seen the world outside and basked in all its decadence and excess.
With this Damascene moment the religious Muzamil begins to question his fate and the settings around him. The tenderness in this unlikely friendship is captured seamlessly. This newfound wisdom would bring Muzamil to various scenarios from which he has been shielding away. Can he beat death at the age of twenty?
After the stellar performances from this carefully selected cast, cinematography stands out for its vibrant visual montage. Alala joined forces with the cinematographer Sébastien Goepfert in creating dreamlike shots with clear blue skies pierced with white turrets against the backdrop of a lifeless and unforgiving terrain. It captures both the beautiful and dangerous aspects of life governed by time-honoured traditions and customs. The equilibrium is extremely fragile.
The screenplay at times is at odds with the progression of the story as some scenes proved to be inconsequential, such as the scene where the religious instructor admires the naked torso of Muzamil while stroking it. Apart from these minor glitches, You Will Die At Twenty marks the arrival of the Sudanese wunderkind to the hallowed halls of great movie makers.
Featured Image: Andolfi, Pyramide International
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