When searching for a blessing on the day of her firstborn child’s naming ceremony, Sakina is instead given a curse. A travelling sheikh prophecies that her son, Muzamil, would die at the age of 20. In what is now a coming-of-death tale, a devastated Sakina is sentenced to mourn her son while he lives – an endeavor her husband could not stand to bear. Growing up under the constant loom of death, Muzamil becomes increasingly curious about what it means to live beyond his mother’s confines. Encouraged by local elders, the overprotective Sakina relents and allows her son to study the Quran with the other children his age. And in this newly found freedom, Muzamil finds friends, enemies, love, and tempters, though what he truly seeks is a sense of the present and a chance at the future.
“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.