Taken at surface level, you’d be forgiven for initially thinking rapper Baloji’s directorial debut was going to transform into a straightforwardly satirical examination of cultural tensions. Arriving in the Democratic Republic of Congo from his adopted homeland of Belgium to introduce his wider family to fiancée Alice (Lucie Debay), Koffi (Marc Zinga) is initially greeted with a cold shoulder, even as he greets them with the good news that he’s about to become a father to twins. All of his family look towards him with suspicion – do they resent him from leaving home to start a new life in Europe?
Gradually, over the course of one of the more awkward family dinner sequences I’ve seen on screen recently, it’s revealed that this is not the case, and Omen transforms into a stranger, much more rewarding beast. We discover early on that, when he was younger, Koffi had become ostracised from his relatives, who accused him of sorcery; even now, many years later, his relatives remain cold to him, and his dad doesn’t even leave work to visit a son he hasn’t seen in decades. The absence of the father was likely the writer/director’s narrative starting point, with the first draft of the screenplay written in the immediate weeks following the death of his dad in 2018. Here, the isolation he felt has been heightened into the winningly surreal drama, which comes to follow several lost souls cast aside due to supernatural accusations from their families.
Baloji’s film never succumbs to miserabilism, however, restlessly hopping between genres – the unease of that family dinner soon gives way to broader horror, with plenty of humour to ground the surreal premise throughout each tonal twist and turn. But the pain of the disconnect between Koffi and his family remains the beating heart of the movie even as the director takes us on detours nearby, encapsulating rival gangs, child wrestlers, and his wider family unit. There’s a genuine anguish to Zinga’s performance, and a desperation to reconnect with those who have cast him aside; in a film that otherwise couldn’t be accused of subtlety with its broad genre beats, he is restrained in comparison, a figure who keeps bringing his partner back into his family’s orbit in the hope that he will one day be accepted again. With the way in which he’s treated, we know this is a thankless task, but the film is successful in depicting this as a hurdle he’s determined to get past. Even with his happy family life back in Belgium, it’s never up for debate why he needs this to be resolved so he can move forward.
But the masterstroke of Omen isn’t through its central character or the twin character studies of others put in a similar position to him. Instead, the even-handed way with which the writer/director portrays his family, refusing to make them antagonists even as they treat Koffi with suspicion and contempt, helps make the drama even richer than it could have been. Yes, Baloji’s sympathies unquestionably lie with his protagonist, but that doesn’t come at the extent of getting to grips with the wider family’s emotions, aiming to sincerely explore their beliefs without demonising them for practicing them. This is what becomes apparent over the course of that family dinner sequence, where a mishap involving a nosebleed leads them all to believe he’s just marked a baby with the sign of the devil – it’s a darkly comic conceit, but the laughs don’t come at the expense of their belief system. The writer/director earnestly wants to extend warmth to those inside the family’s circle as much as those who have been cast aside; it’s an uphill struggle considering many of the sequences here, but one he manages to pull off. It’s critical without being condemnatory.
In the later stages, Omen shifts focus to Koffi’s sister Tshala (Eliane Umuhire), as the film takes a deeper dive into the graver consequences for women in society who have been labeled as a witch. Tshala is embarking on a move to South Africa with her partner just as her sibling arrives, a move stifled by some personal news from her partner which she resorts to superstition to resolve. There is a much more casual cruelty to the way in which she’s regarded, reflecting her place as a woman who doesn’t conform to the demands of Congolese society, but without the cultural commentary ever becoming too painfully on-the-nose to render it ineffective.
Ultimately, Omen is an impressive debut for the writer/director, an effective showcase for an inventive spirit who can bend myriad directorial influences to his will. Despite the genre-bending surrealism, it’s the character drama which packs the biggest punch – and it’s in this regard that Baloji reveals himself to be a writer/director to watch out for.
Written by Alistair Ryder
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