(Written by Intern, Wyatt Frantz)
People around the world hold many different belief systems and values to heart, which sometimes clash into conflict or even chaos, when we need each other the most. This makes it refreshing to see a film that seeks to transcend culture and language. Omen is bold enough to do just that, demanding the audience’s attention and asking them to navigate these cultural barriers in the process.
Our two main characters, Koffi (Marc Zinga) and Alice (Lucie Debay), an interracial couple living in Belgium, are introduced preparing to meet Koffi’s family in Kinshasa to hand his father a dowry and announce their marriage. After struggling to reach them, they meet at an awkward family luncheon. There, they are judged for staying at Tshala’s (Eliane Umuhire) place: one of Koffi’s sisters who also subverts family norms and traditions. Koffi’s father mysteriously doesn’t attend the luncheon. At one point, Koffi nosebleeds onto one of his nieces, leading the family to believe he has cursed his sister’s child. A religious ceremony denouncing Koffi and a scheduled plane ride home follow. Shortly after the family gathering gone wrong, Koffi and Alice cross paths with Paco (Marcel Otete Kabeya), a member of a gender-defiant tribe called the Goonz. Leading up to Koffi’s flight home, Koffi attempts to reconcile with his family while the audience navigates his family history alongside Paco’s turbulent tribal conflicts. Fate comes to show that our characters may be more interconnected than we first realize.
The synopsis shows an intent to craft a “portrait” of spiritual and cultural figures, using magical realism to paint its picture. While a clear aesthetic image is created in the process, the unconventional and fragmented narrative makes it far from straightforward. As a result, a casual audience will have difficulty fishing for themes. Koffi and Alice’s plot shines a clear spotlight on cultural family differences and traditional versus progressive thinking. However, any value found in the details becomes somewhat muddled in scenes that feel roughly woven together, making it difficult to unpack unique insights from Koffi’s journey. When he and Paco’s stories intersect when matters grow more existential, a plot point with much expected payoff feels as if it swings too low, struggling to push the narrative forward. This underwhelming impact shows that the screenplay could have benefitted from a more clear focus and a stronger narrative direction. There is plenty of worth in the ideas being conveyed when one analyzes each scene in a vacuum, but its influence from the new wave requires viewers to play a very active role in analyzing the film from a broader scope. I don’t see this as a complete downfall—the creative vision is original and even strong here. However, its means of arriving at its conclusion might not be for everyone.
While the cinematography does what may be expected, I would have liked to see more effective visual storytelling beyond a simple showcase of character actions and emotions. With the magical and spiritually-focused premise, there is great benefit in complementing the mystical tone with visuals that are just as compelling. The intention to use the frame as a canvas becomes much more obvious with the visually-focused scenes that do exist, resulting in moments that feel as magical as the premise sets out to be. The pink smoke, for example, makes a largely beautiful and symbolic impact whenever shown on screen, and it just so happens to slate itself as part of Omen’s identity. When it comes to smaller scenes that carry less significant thematic weight (which is what we see most of the time), many shots feel lackluster in comparison, foregoing a clear color palette or using shot compositions that could have been stronger in retrospect. Even though not every shot has to be groundbreaking, the visual potential is there, and I was somewhat disappointed to see it applied inconsistently.
As a whole, Baloji Tshian proves himself as a bold voice in cinema, challenging filmic conventions while taking on a unique cultural perspective. As a lover of magical realism myself, I look forward to seeing more of his interesting approach to the medium once he hones in on his ability to use cinematic language to tell stories. If one has a knack for films that make them think twice with an interest in spiritual and cultural themes, Omen is not worth missing.
Be sure to evade any unbeknownst cinematic curses by catching Omen at the Cannes Film Festival when it premieres on Monday, May 22nd.