Omen: Baloji’s dynamic debut confronts the world of Congolese mysticism

A Congolese man faces a fraught homecoming plagued by family superstitions that have persisted since childhood in rapper/director Baloji’s fantastical feature debut.

Mordecaï Kamangu as Simba in Omen (2023)

The long fingers of spiritual custom act as a constricting force in Baloji’s dynamic and dreamy feature debut Omen. The rapper has been making shorts for several years and his first feature carries the signature of those earlier works – from pointed social commentary to elusive narrative structures and propulsive rhythmic editing and music. Anyone entranced by his much-lauded 2019 short Zombies can rest assured that Baloji’s transition to the longer form has done little to blunt his artistic edge.

Even before Koffi (Marc Zinga) and his white fiancée Alice (Lucie Debay) travel from Belgium to the Democratic Republic of Congo to meet Koffi’s family, they know that his traditionalist mother Mujila (Yves-Marina Gnahoua) will refuse to welcome them inside her house, a fact that seems to induce an epileptic seizure in her son. But it is only once they actually arrive in DRC that the clutches of antique belief systems, and how such systems can be employed to divide or control, become clear.

First, it transpires that the birthmark on Koffi’s face has seen him maligned as zabolo – ‘devil-marked’ – since birth. Then an innocuous nosebleed is misconstrued as witchcraft and a distressing ritual is conducted as punishment under the unwavering gaze of his own mother. As the film progresses, both Koffi and his more liberal-minded sister Tshala (Eliane Umuhire from the 2021 sci-fi musical Neptune Frost) find themselves submitting to practices and philosophies that they feel are archaic but from which they cannot divorce themselves. In Omen’s most heartbreaking scenes, revelations of the family history provide not just context for Mujila’s own situation but profound pathos.

The film is divided into four chapters, named for different characters: Koffi, Paco (Marcel Otete Kabeya) – a young boy who heads a local gang – Tshala and, finally, Mujila. Paco’s storyline feels less enmeshed with the others literally and thematically, but offers the perfect injection of more fantastic elements. For instance, Paco’s wrestling for power with another local gang is embellished with a fabulous sequence depicting a mythic woodland-dwelling witch who takes his sister, and another scene in which the gang high-tails it through the city streets. 

Baloji’s projects exude energy, and here it can be found in everything from Joachim Philippe’s immersive cinematography to Liesa Van der Aa’s pulsating soundtrack. Far from ever feeling like style over substance, though, Omen blends complicated relationships, complex societal issues and spiky political allusions with verve and swagger.

Omen is in UK cinemas now.