When considering a film, it can be healthy to have some skepticism, no matter what genre or subject matter is at hand. With regards to Omen, we have a Belgian-Congolese co-production, a highly intriguing contradiction to consider between the colonizer and the colonized that is itself part of the film’s text. Seeing a bevy of Western names in the end credits didn’t do much to ease these concerns about playing into the assumptions of a, say, European festival audience. Yet Omen is a respectable work all the same, an assured first feature by rapper-turned-actor Baloji Tshiani that never falters in ambition or surprise. 

Our main character is Koffi (Marc Zinga), introduced with his afro being trimmed by his pregnant fiance Alice (Lucie Debay) as we see the pressure of assimilation haunting him, even though the film largely excises whiteness outside of Alice (in what seems like a somewhat fraught relationship). The point-of-view shots that greet the couple when they arrive back in his home country effectively show both his state of mind and a flip on the usual makeup of a micro-aggressions scene seen in a film dealing with racial relations. 

But Koffi has another hindrance to him, having a birthmark that earns him the name of “zabalo,” or the devil. A supernatural spell seems to hang over him, including when a nosebleed at an otherwise orderly outdoor gathering leads to full-on persecution by his fellow Congolese––including what seems like a full-on equivalent of an exorcism ceremony, veering the film very suddenly from the subtle embarrassment comedy to something a lot more intense. In fact, the shifting of tones just as things risk getting rote is one of its most appealing elements throughout

Lead actor Marc Zinga’s portrayal of Koffi is very internalized; a scene where he breaks into the English language while under duress is both powerful and shocking. Perhaps understanding his hangdog persona isn’t quite enough for a feature, the film extends its grasp to his family and other inhabitants of the homeland, including the number of sorcerers and witches who inhabit it. The film gradually becomes more confident in its time- and space-traveling, encompassing something greater than its seeming initial intent; breaking away from what seems like a limited, outsider-friendly perspective to something more about a nation in general, and letting us spend more time within the customs that initially alienate Koffi. 

There’s some worry that the film perhaps taunts the prejudices of Western audiences with occasional “othering,” layering horror movie music or editing over scenes of mysticism. But there’s a degree to which this writer is maybe showing their ass by making assumptions about the writer-director’s prerogative––a case of some welcome ambiguity to go along with a number of potent, square aspect-ratio images. One could say this is the true definition of a promising debut and a subject that the film doesn’t necessarily close the book on once it ends. Baloji Tshiani could explore these ideas even more in further films.

Omen is now in theaters.

Grade: B

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