Omen (2023), a beautifully designed fable set somewhere in an unnamed part of Africa, reflects on the destructive power of tradition. Congolese director Baloji dismembers and examines it patiently, letting a more-than-solid cast carry the meandering story and lead it toward a satisfying conclusion.
Dating back to the biblical theme of a prodigal son, the act of returning home carries immense weight and gravitas. Sometimes, these roots resemble sanctuary grounds, where you tread lightly and are only invited to draw from the well of memories, customs, and traditions, but with the utmost respect. Not all of these sanctuary grounds are necessarily welcoming, though. For Koffi (Marc Zinga), the journey begins in Belgium, where his wife Alice (Lucie Debay) helps him erase every trace of an afro haircut. It’s a bad sign, he says. Is her husband expecting that a triviality like that might trigger a hostile response among his kin? Or does guilt require extra effort to appeal to the family he left behind eighteen years ago? Either way, Koffi wades on, practicing responses in Swahili by heart – a language he completely forgot.
None of these preparations matter – they shatter in a snap. The first meeting with Koffi’s sister Tshala never comes to fruition; a surprise visit to a mine where his father works turns out to be a fiasco, and his family greets the couple with rather undisguised hostility. Such a state of things does not surprise Koffi, whom everyone deemed a sorcerer years ago. But it hurts. Everyone’s tense, so just one unfortunate act spirals out of control, and, in a matter of minutes, Baloji conjures up a nightmare of cabal rituals meant to cast away ‘Zabolo’ – the demon that’s believed to be residing in Koffi since the day he was born. It’s a scene from a horror film, in the vibe of occult horror movies or His House (2020). It shows the deck hidden up Baloji’s sleeve, who warns us about fastening the seatbelts.
In light of this enormous failure to reconnect, Koffi wishes to complete at least one of the familial assignments – passing the dowry to his parents. But that also becomes unattainable because the matriarch of the family – Mama Mulija (Yves-Marina Gnahoua) – rejects any contact with the estranged son. No help comes from Koffi’s father either – he is presumed to be permanently stuck at work. In a land he no longer understands nor considers safe – land that’s not a specific country but rather an amalgamation of variegated African cultures and influences – Koffi has little reason to keep fighting. And yet he wades on nevertheless.
Baloji’s visual language propels the feeling of Koffi’s alienation. In this phantasmagorical junction of numerous inspirations, the Congolese filmmaker creates a wondrous world that sizzles like a dish full of unique spices and ingredients. Gangsters wear tribal masks but also pink dresses, witch doctors have regular business cards, and trash sites host ‘floating’ graveyards. But most importantly, it’s a dog-eat-dog world, as seen through the lens of two rivaling youth gangs. Koffi is a lone outsider, a man dropped into the middle of a warzone without means of fighting back. And yet we cannot deny his tenacity and dedication.
A sole ally in this family struggle is Tshala because she’s seen through the decay of the oppressive custom that saw Koffi becoming ostracized. Tshala struggles in an open relationship with a foreign boyfriend. When one of his side encounters endangers them, Tshala follows tradition – a shamanic treatment with no real healing power. It’s a gimmick of her family’s world, perfectly captured by the boyfriend stating that palm oil – used in the ‘therapy’ – doesn’t cure shit. Why does she go through the ordeal, then? Because she was told to. In one of the film’s key scenes, Tshala explains to Alice how things work – and despite sharing similarities with Koffi’s wife born under the strict regime of an authoritative German father, she makes a strong case for herself. It’s Baloji warning us not to judge any of these people because an actual change takes generations – and Tshala, together with Koffi, represents the beginning of the current, not a catalyst. They want to go beyond tradition and maintain family bonds, setting aside superstitions and being physically apart.
Considering the above, the most tragic character of Omen (2023) is Mama Mujila. Baloji both criticizes and sympathizes with her. On the one hand, her behavior further drills wounds in her children, channeling the internalized rage into a wall of silence and disinterest in anything related to Koffi. But Baloji doesn’t treat the woman as an antagonist. Instead, by the film’s end, she becomes a symbol of being trapped in the claws of the system – like a bird in a cage, purchased to fulfill its existence and live within its confines. In an interview, the filmmaker mentioned that the script was his way of coping with grief and that Mama Mujila felt very close to him. And it tells, too – Yves-Marina Gnahoua has the presence of someone downtrodden with regret and someone not fitted to adapt quickly.
One final piece to the puzzle of Omen (2023) is a gangster kid named Paco. Although given significantly less screen time, Paco plays a crucial role in capturing the brutal reality of the city, as well as tying the knots in a slick fashion. Paco’s storyline sometimes feels disjointed – at least until the very end of the movie – but his revenge tale adds another layer to the whimsical world of Omen (2023). As if inspired by The Clockwork Orange (1971), Paco’s gang escapes mobster stereotypes – it’s a bunch of kids wearing pink dresses. However, this outfit has a specific reason and a well-known children’s story behind it. Therein lies the bliss of Baloji’s perceptive direction – where many filmmakers would be tempted to treat this kid as their random flamethrower-guitar dude, Baloji provides meaning – and throws in his own flamethrower-guitar dudes too.
Despite the heavy visual language, Baloji always retains a tight grip over the narrative. In the center of the stage remains an invisible leash that keeps younger generations tied to their past and determines the radius of how far they can go. Unsurprisingly, the trauma’s grasp cannot be escaped – it can only be loosened enough to let one breathe.