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A boy lives under the weight of his foretold death on his 20th birthday.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Amjad Abu Alala

Starring: Islam Mubarak, Mustafa Shehata, Mahmoud Alsarraj, Bonna Khalid

Have you ever spent weeks or months living in apprehension at the thought of an upcoming dental appointment, the return of test results or some awful social engagement that fills you with dread? Well then you'll know what Muzamil, the young protagonist of director Amjad Abu Alala's Sudanese drama You Will Die at Twenty, is going through.

Days after his birth, Muzamil's mother, Sakina (Islam Mubarak), takes the boy to a blessing ceremony where it is prophesied that Muzamil will pass away upon turning 20. With his future written off, Muzamil is kept out of school and as a child becomes a pariah in his local community, cruelly mocked by other kids as "the son of death." His father, Alnoor (Talal Afifi), leaves the village to find employment abroad.

you will die at 20 review

We then catch up with Muzamil aged 19 (now played by Mustafa Shehata), with mere months left to live if the prophecy is to be believed. His father has never returned to the village and believing he has no future, his mother hasn't bothered investing in his education. Muzamil isn't sure what to believe, but he vows to gain knowledge, even if he won't be around to put it to use. He begins studying the Quran and takes a job delivering groceries.

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It's this latter job that brings him into contact with Sulaiman (Mahmoud Elsaraj), a well travelled elderly man who has recently returned to the village. Sulaiman's travels have broadened his horizons, making him the one person in the village who possesses an outright disbelief of Muzamil's predetermined fate.

you will die at 20 review

There's something of the Cinema Paradiso in the relationship that subsequently develops between Muzamil and Sulaiman. The old man has brought back with him a projector and reels of film containing old movies and footage of Sudan in more prosperous times. The movies open Muzamil's eyes to a world beyond the boundaries of his village, where anything seems possible, and his loins are stirred by the sight of actress Hind Rustum, Egypt's answer to Rita Hayworth.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - All is Vanity ]

But still the prophecy hangs over Muzamil like a cloud, and indeed over the audience. We're left in the dark as to whether the prophecy will come through as Abu Alala's film refuses to take a side in the debate between spirituality and skepticism. Muzamil is torn between the teachings of his Imam, who believes in the prophecy, and the secular Sulaiman, but he seems to take comfort from both the former's ancient book and the modern artform introduced to him by the latter. The film seems to suggest that religion and secularism can co-exist, but it's inevitable that in the climax, one will ultimately be proven correct.

you will die at 20 review

In stretches, You Will Die at Twenty has a somnambulist effect. Its scorched cinematography, courtesy of Sébastien Goepfert, captures the feel of a part of the world where the merest of movements can wear you out under its baking sun. Coupled with the measured pace of Abu Alala's storytelling, the result is one of those curious films that will have you yawning even though you're fully invested. I saw it at the tail end of a day packed with festival screenings and I believe my mental sluggishness may have added to the experience of relating to Muzamil's sense that the sun is going down on his numbered days on earth.

You Will Die at Twenty is on MUBI UK now.