a still from Omen
ManOfTheCenturyMovie Film ‘Omen’ Review: A culture clash in the Congo takes a turn for the occult

‘Omen’ Review: A culture clash in the Congo takes a turn for the occult

a still from Omen

One of the innumerable tragedies resulting from the decade-long conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo is the suffocation of all kinds of national cinema. For most of this century, the nation’s capital, Kinshasa, didn’t even have a movie theater; due to chronic funding difficulties and the instability plaguing much of the country, the handful of non-documentary features on the Congo that emerge are largely financed by foreign actors.

Hip-hopper-turned-director Baloji’s first feature film, ‘Omen’ is a Belgian, Dutch and Congolese co-production, and while it offers a deeply felt look into Congolese mores, sensibilities and family dynamics, it foregrounds his own perspective European. The result is an intriguingly ambivalent reckoning with Baloji’s motherland, a beautifully elusive cross-genre exploration of Congolese belief systems and their relation to the traumas inflicted by patriarchy.

Baloji tackles his material with clarity and complexity: the film is divided into four chapters, each titled after its respective protagonist but narratively intersecting with the other three. In the first segment, Koffi (Marc Zinga) — as the director, a Congolese Belgian born in Lubumbashi — is nervous about returning to his hometown for the first time in 18 years, to introduce his family to his pregnant white girlfriend , Alice (Lucie Debay). Already the omens are not good: her mother Mujila has hinted, via phone call, that she will not be welcome at home; shortly thereafter she collapses in the corridor and has an epileptic fit. And when the pair finally arrive in the Congo, Koffi’s sister Tshala, who is alleged to have given them a lift from the airport, is nowhere to be seen.

Once Koffi and Alice reach the family home, they are met with a predictably frosty reception, which, instead of thawing, soon erupts into hysteria when Koffi, gently cradling the baby of one of her other sisters, has blood from the nose. Involuntarily dropping a couple of scarlet drops on the child’s cheek, he finds the child torn from him; Alice is pushed away and accusations of devilry are made.

Although the scene recalls the dark humor of the culture clash in the first stretch of “Get Out” (2017), and the following sequence – in which Koffi undergoes a ritual purge while a disturbed Alice looks on – echoes the horror elements of that film , the prevailing impression here is one of ineffable sadness.

Subsequent chapters elaborate on this displeasure. The one dedicated to Tshala (Eliane Umuhire) explores her relationship with her womanizing boyfriend Ezra (Bongewize Mabandla); Umuhire, the Rwandan actor who made such a vivid impression in the 2021 Afrofuturist musical ‘Neptune Frost’, imbues Tshala with a generous vivacity and proud modernity that makes the moment when she desperately resorts to witchcraft to dispel all the more startling. a sexually transmitted disease he contracted from Ezra. The final chapter, concerning Mujila (Yves-Marina Gnahoua), is one of the revelations, excavating the pain—born of the emotional suppression and lack of bodily action she had as a young woman—that underlies Mujila’s superstitious belief system. she.

Omen Review A culture clash in the Congo takes a | ManOfTheCenturyMovie

In order for all this to sound extraordinarily melancholic, there is no shortage of humor throughout and narrative dynamism abounds: the second chapter of the film, entitled “Paco”, introduces a teenage antibiotic dealer (played by Marcel Otete Kabeya) who has nothing to deal with the family. The leader of a band of pink tutus called the Goonz, who are embroiled in a turf war with a vicious rival group, Paco is struggling to get over the death of his young sister Maya; his relationship to the spirit realm is most explicitly realized, particularly in a startling sequence involving a forest-dwelling witch and a slow-motion potion explosion.

Throughout the film’s parade of visual riches, there are tantalizing hints at larger and more troubling themes. On a bus ride, Koffi talks to an old miner who points, both puzzled and quietly concerned, at a man walking outside in a leopard-print suit; later, a similarly dressed businessman offers a Wi-Fi hotspot under a tree. These explicit invocations of Mobutu Sese Seko – president of the Congo from 1965 to 1997, often identified in leopard skin clothes – suggest a population that yearns, in an oddly kitsch way, for a dark past; speaks of a cultural and political amnesia (which is certainly not limited to the DRC). Much of the political platform of the murderous dictator of “authenticity” – a large-scale attempt to free the country from the trappings of colonialism and to reclaim indigenous Congolese (or Zairean) customs – barely survived his reign, but that particular populist ideology is refracted through many of the steadfast characters of “Omen ” belief in witchcraft.

While it would have been gratifying to see such topics explored in greater depth, Baloji’s approach to Congolese history is deliberately allusive; his style is more intuitive than analytical. This sometimes brings up elements of the character that are dropped as quickly as they are introduced – both Koffi and Paco are prone to epileptic seizures, suggesting a metaphysical link between them – but nothing more comes of it.

A generous viewer might see Baloji’s reluctance to follow or build upon these connections as simply a sign of sheer faith in his material: it is up to the viewer to construct meanings and correlations. In any case, it shouldn’t be confused with a lack of depth. The director’s gift for unpacking how notions of witchcraft can work like fig leaves for trauma, combined with his evident eye for costumes, lighting and framing, create a visually stunning, deeply compassionate debut. and memorable.

Fans of Congolese popular music, meanwhile, will enjoy the final song: “Kinsiona,” written by national legend (and “guitar sorcerer”) Franco Luambo, performed here by Malage de Lugendo, who owned one of the silkiest tenors of the 80s (and which lends its name to one of the characters in the film). The song is Franco’s lament for his younger brother, who died at the age of 26 in a car accident; it’s a subtle echo of Paco’s brotherly heartbreak and a final reminder, if any were needed, of Baloji’s sensitive attention to detail.

Grade: B+

“Omen” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.

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