Omen (Augure, 2023) ‘Cannes’ Review: Belgium-based artist and polymath Baloji debuted his first features at Cannes, and this utterly beautiful piece of cinema reflects his deep connection with moving genre-hybrid art. Titled Omen, the film is an amalgamation of who Bajoli is as a person — a musical artist who roots his understanding of rhythm in empathy and a storyteller who actively spins poetry out of his visual metaphors. As intensely personal as Omen is, it is also deeply universal — it is a synesthetic, operatic tale about four Congolese individuals who have been marked as witches/sorcerers by their society and forced to bear the cross of ostracization throughout their lives.

Koffi (Mark Zinga) and his partner Alice (Lucie Debay) are about to have twins, and they decide to travel to Koffi’s hometown in the Democratic Republic of Congo to receive the blessings of his parents. However, this situation is more complicated and painful than it seems, as Koffi has spent most of his life estranged from his family, deemed a social pariah who brings ill luck and shame to anyone he comes in contact with.

There are complex, intertwining threads of patriarchy, superstition, and unresolved familial trauma defining Koffi’s unique situation, and his port wine stain birthmark emerges as a literal mark he has to shoulder no matter where he goes. No matter how sincere Koffi and Alice are in their quest to be accepted by a largely unaccepting family, the trip ends in infuriating injustice and tragedy for both involved.

Koffi, however, is not the only person who must contend with the enforced mantle of a witch or sorcerer. Three other individuals must deal with the same burden in differing ways — the determined, rebellious Paco (Marcel Otete Kabeya) must fight for his autonomy while facing off against a gang of cruel street kids, Tshala (Eliane Umuhire), Koffi’s sister, can never experience true freedom and embrace her sexuality due to a patriarchal, misogynistic society, and Mama Mujila (Yves-Marina Gnahoua), who has been branded a witch too, ends up enforcing the same cruelties that broke her spirit when she was young. These four stories snake together and find their way into one another in a way that feels fitting. Although various factors shape their individual destinies, they meet at a point of no return.

Omen (Augure, 2023)
A still from Omen (Augure, 2023)

Baloji, who himself has had to shoulder the burden of a name that can be interpreted to mean “sorcerer,” understands the plight of his characters innately and what it means to function within the confines of a rigid societal structure built on the negation of individual freedom and autonomy. Culture also plays a role here, informing the reactions to these so-called transgressions, and Baloji borrows from diverse sources to create a moving image steeped in prophecy and poetry. From Gilles folklore to visual echoes of Mardi Gras, Omen weaves a rich fabric of cultural norms, myths, and practices, making the film steeped in mystery and symbolism, with its emotional core being heightened by these visual flourishes.

Magic realism has played a seminal role in Baloji’s work. He uses this aspect to open the film with a stunning view of a Magritte-esque desert, peppered with straw men swaying in the wind, who burn ablaze in the dead of night towards the end. These mystical, surreal touches do not feel contrived or pretentious at any point. If anything, they enhance our understanding of the four characters and what it means for them to belong in a world that has essentially rejected their very existence. These haunting images are the pinnacle of poetry, including an extended mourning sequence rife with familial and professional mourners, where the sight of unbridled tears and the inescapable smell of death frame the scene as one that is a product of a fever dream.

Another metaphor that stands out is the recreation of the Hansel and Gretel tale via Paco and his sister’s storyline. It is a surreal extension of the reality where parents often blame their youngest child for the sudden onset of poverty after their birth. This is perhaps an equally cruel mark to bear, considering how blameless a child is in such a situation, and Paco has to also nurse the unhealed wound of losing the only safe space and confidant he has ever known. Finding solace and embracing these complex identities can often feel impossible, but Baloji ends Omen on a note of hope, where closure can be achieved in the midst of a desert.

Due to the synesthetic nature of Omen, it is impossible to alienate its sonic and visual themes from its core narrative, as all of these aspects essentially feed into one another. Baloji painstakingly created four mini-albums from each character’s perspective. While they do not feature in the film, they enrich their stories further, rooting their tale in compassion and earnest understanding. In the end, Omen reflects the ever-evolving vignettes of prejudice-based ostracization via a specific socio-cultural lens, embracing its complexity like a well-tuned prism and scattering the refracted images of the lives that are and could have been.

Omen (Augure) was screened at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival

Omen (Augure, 2023) Links: IMDb
Omen (Augure, 2023) Cast: Eliane Umuhire, Lucie Debay, Marc Zinga

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