May 24, 2024 3:15 am

Omen
Omen

Omen

Across a strikingly monotone desert landscape a figure cloaked in black rides atop a horse. It’s a vision that instantly recalls the horsemen of the apocalypse. But when the rider dismounts the horse at the first sight of water and removes her breast from her robes, filling the oasis with breast milk, we are spellbound as we come to understand the concoction of historied fables and narrative reinvention that gives “Omen” structure. 

In his directorial debut, Congolese-Belgian rapper Baloji reckons with the spiritual and existential in a narrative rife with sorcery and familial face-offs. “Omen” is split into four chapters, each named after its respective protagonist (though each chapter intersects). Koffi (Marc Zinga), like Baloji, is a Congolese man living in Belgium. With nearly two decades separating him from his last return home, Koffi and his wife, Alice (Lucie Debay), pregnant with twins, are heading back to introduce her and their children-to-be to his family. Yet Koffi, riddled with anxieties over his parents’ traditionalism, is nervous not only to bring his white wife home, but apprehensive to re-engage with the strict, highly spiritual culture that previously cast him out. 

The film’s title rings as a warning through every action taken, every crossed path, every “accident” encountered. When Koffi lands in Congo, he is unable to reach his sister, who is supposed to pick him up from the airport. Left to their own devices, when they obtain a car, they travel to the mines to look for his father and deliver a dowry, and he is nowhere to be found. And after arriving at the family party, Koffi holds his sister’s infant son, and while doing so, gets a nosebleed that spatters the child’s cheek in blood. The boy is ripped from his arms as the women insist that he has cursed the baby, and he is dragged to a hut where a shaman performs rites to rid and redeem, dunking his head in water and nailing a wooden mask around his head. The question of omens is not only posed to Koffi, but to us as well. Are these hysterics wrong or warranted? 

While Koffi is the film’s core character, his sister Tshala (Eliane Umuhire), mother Mujila (Yves-Marina Gnahoua), and a young boy named Paco (Marcel Otete Kabeya), whose story runs alongside rather than intertwined with Koffi’s, are given their own chapters in the story. The formula of “Omen” sees its cast approaching their utterly human fates under the influences of omens, shamans, and a surrealist spirit realm. Tshala, casually rebuked by her family for moving to South Africa “to live with the white Africans” hides her polyamorous relationship for fears of greater rejection. Mujila battles motherly instinct against spiritual belief, struggling to find ground firm enough for confident dwelling. And Paco, living in a repurposed bus with his crew of tutu-clad wrestling gangsters, mourns the loss of his sister while also navigating the increasingly violent threats of a rival gang. 

Each of these protagonists finds themselves on the defensive end of a fight to pilot their own existences, and the world in which they search for support feels on constant brink of collapse. “Omen” excellently captures the feelings of both cultural and generational alienation. In script and performance, there is never a moment of certainty. When the hard-boiled problems of shunned family, complex relationships, and mortality are met with the elusive treatments of cultural spiritualism, it’s apparent in Koffi’s fear, Tshala’s dejection, Mujila’s mournful eyes, and Paco’s indignant anger that everyone is clawing for control in a world that permits none. 

The tenets of the culture’s belief system are never unpacked, only passively hinted, and are portrayed differently from a separately suggested otherworldly dimension that we see in a flashback with Paco and his sister. What these psychic portrayals don’t lack, however, is style. Creative camera angles, puffs of colored smoke, static shots marked by nighttime chiaroscuro or daytime technicolor, and eclectic wardrobe choices that just makes you think “god that’s cool,” are easy distractions. While Baloji’s intent could be to lean into ambiguity, context becomes desired even as the stunning visual tableaus and excellent costuming seek to be enough. The surreal is in living breathing form in “Omen,” and the magical realism is aptly bewitching. What remains consistent is the film’s base commitment to the motif of life substances: blood, milk, and water; corruption, subsistence, and redemption. 

“Omen” is a visually enthralling piece of magical realism proposing ideas on pariahs, culture, and individuality in a world with constantly changing rules. But in devoting so much work to the aesthetic, it falls behind in making sense of its phantasmagoric storylines. The intentions are clear, and some of the feelings snake their way through the high grasses of its flair, but the ideas that form the foundation of “Omen” are built on splintering wood, cheekily threatening to crush it all. 

Across a strikingly monotone desert landscape a figure cloaked in black rides atop a horse. It’s a vision that instantly recalls the horsemen of the apocalypse. But when the rider dismounts the horse at the first sight of water and removes her breast from her robes, filling the oasis with breast milk, we are spellbound as we come to understand the concoction of historied fables and narrative reinvention that gives “Omen” structure.  In his directorial debut, Congolese-Belgian rapper Baloji reckons with the spiritual and existential in a narrative rife with sorcery and familial face-offs. “Omen” is split into four chapters, each named after its respective protagonist (though each chapter intersects). Koffi (Marc Zinga), like Baloji, is a Congolese man living in Belgium. With nearly two decades separating him from his last return home, Koffi and his wife, Alice (Lucie Debay), pregnant with twins, are heading back to introduce her and their children-to-be to his family. Yet Koffi, riddled with anxieties over his parents’ traditionalism, is nervous not only to bring his white wife home, but apprehensive to re-engage with the strict, highly spiritual culture that previously cast him out.  The film’s title rings as a warning through every action taken, every crossed path, every “accident” encountered. When Koffi lands in Congo, he is unable to reach his sister, who is supposed to pick him up from the airport. Left to their own devices, when they obtain a car, they travel to the mines to look for his father and deliver a dowry, and he is nowhere to be found. And after arriving at the family party, Koffi holds his sister’s infant son, and while doing so, gets a nosebleed that spatters the child’s cheek in blood. The boy is ripped from his arms as the women insist that he has cursed the baby, and he is dragged to a hut where a shaman performs rites to rid and redeem, dunking his head in water and nailing a wooden mask around his head. The question of omens is not only posed to Koffi, but to us as well. Are these hysterics wrong or warranted?  While Koffi is the film’s core character, his sister Tshala (Eliane Umuhire), mother Mujila (Yves-Marina Gnahoua), and a young boy named Paco (Marcel Otete Kabeya), whose story runs alongside rather than intertwined with Koffi’s, are given their own chapters in the story. The formula of “Omen” sees its cast approaching their utterly human fates under the influences of omens, shamans, and a surrealist spirit realm. Tshala, casually rebuked by her family for moving to South Africa “to live with the white Africans” hides her polyamorous relationship for fears of greater rejection. Mujila battles motherly instinct against spiritual belief, struggling to find ground firm enough for confident dwelling. And Paco, living in a repurposed bus with his crew of tutu-clad wrestling gangsters, mourns the loss of his sister while also navigating the increasingly violent threats of a rival gang.  Each of these protagonists finds themselves on the defensive end of a fight to pilot their own existences, and the world in which they search for support feels on constant brink of collapse. “Omen” excellently captures the feelings of both cultural and generational alienation. In script and performance, there is never a moment of certainty. When the hard-boiled problems of shunned family, complex relationships, and mortality are met with the elusive treatments of cultural spiritualism, it’s apparent in Koffi’s fear, Tshala’s dejection, Mujila’s mournful eyes, and Paco’s indignant anger that everyone is clawing for control in a world that permits none.  The tenets of the culture’s belief system are never unpacked, only passively hinted, and are portrayed differently from a separately suggested otherworldly dimension that we see in a flashback with Paco and his sister. What these psychic portrayals don’t lack, however, is style. Creative camera angles, puffs of colored smoke, static shots marked by nighttime chiaroscuro or daytime technicolor, and eclectic wardrobe choices that just makes you think “god that’s cool,” are easy distractions. While Baloji’s intent could be to lean into ambiguity, context becomes desired even as the stunning visual tableaus and excellent costuming seek to be enough. The surreal is in living breathing form in “Omen,” and the magical realism is aptly bewitching. What remains consistent is the film’s base commitment to the motif of life substances: blood, milk, and water; corruption, subsistence, and redemption.  “Omen” is a visually enthralling piece of magical realism proposing ideas on pariahs, culture, and individuality in a world with constantly changing rules. But in devoting so much work to the aesthetic, it falls behind in making sense of its phantasmagoric storylines. The intentions are clear, and some of the feelings snake their way through the high grasses of its flair, but the ideas that form the foundation of “Omen” are built on splintering wood, cheekily threatening to crush it all.  Read More