Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer and Director: Baloji

Omen, by Belgian Congolese rapper and film-maker, Baloji, is his first feature, entered by Belgium for the Oscars’ Best International Feature and awarded a special Un Certain Regard at Cannes. It’s a wild, pulsating blast of a movie, but one that often omits the narrative links that would make it easier to follow. It’s hard too, to pick up the movie’s tone. Sometimes it’s overtly comic, sometimes little short of sheer horror. In particular, its sequences showing sinister shamanic figures performing cruel rituals seem to veer worryingly at times towards racial stereotyping. The editing (Bertrand Conard and Bruno Tracq), with sudden unexplained changes of scene, some of which may or may not be dream sequences, adds to the troubling language of the film. Visually its stunning, cinematographer Joachim Philippe creating compelling tableaux, from the opening scene in which a veiled figure walks in a desert between crosses of staw men, to the painterly focus on the grieving Mama Mujila (Yves-Marina Gnahoua).

The film starts in Belgium where Congolese Koffi (Marc Zinga) is having his afro cut by his pregnant fiancée, Alice (Lucie Debay) in preparation for a trip home to Kinshasa. Alice is naively enthusiastic about meeting Koffi’s family – it seems Koffi has never confided in her the nature of the country where he grew up. Omens follow thick and fast on their arrival. Koffi’s beloved sister Tshala (Elaine Umuhire) fails to turn up and won’t pick up his calls; similarily all his attempts to meet his miner father are frustrated. The key scene comes when, all dressed up, Koffi and Alice turn up to a family party, to find the atmosphere tense and hostile. Is Koffi being blamed for having moved to Belgium or is it the fact of his partner being white that offends them? First there is coldness, significant looks passing between the women. Then Koffi, having asked to hold a cousin’s baby, has a sudden nosebleed. A drop of blood accidently falls on the child and all hell breaks lose. Seemingly benign uncles turn into masked sorcerers, insisting Koffi is a devil who has cursed the child. They carry out some arcane ritual involving sticking a vast wooden head over Koffi and then hammering in nails. All this happens within the first twenty minutes of the film and sets the tone for what is to come.

Characters have strange nightmares, or experience flashbacks. At one stage younger versions of the protagonists find a sort of gingerbread house deep in a forest where a sorceress makes them drink from a vast cauldron. There is a semi-comic rivalry between two teenage wrestling gangs, one of which dresses entirely in girly pink drag. Paco (Marcus Otete Kabeya) is a strong presence in these scenes We continue to meet various exotic figures of sorcerers who are always up to mischief. It doesn’t feel, however, as if Baloji is using Omen to make any sort of political point about the legacy of Belgian colonial power in the DRC. Rather that he is having outrageous fun with stereotypes.

The comedy broadens towards the end when it’s clear Koffi’s tough-cookie women cousins are meant to be laughed at. They check out how they look with the black veils they have to wear for a wake, before breaking into a performance of increasingly hysterical ululation. But then Mama Mujila’s grief, and the casual cruelty of her brother-in-law, Oncle Malage, turning her out of her home, is genuinely tragic. Quite why, some months from their first horrific visit, Koffi and Alice decide to return to Kinshasa, now accompanied by a pair of decidedly non-identical twins, remains an intriguing mystery.

Despite the plot issues, there is something compellingly energetic about Omen.

OMENwill open in cinemas on 26 April.

wild, pulsating blast

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