The post The First Omen: Symphonic Terror, by Scott Nye appeared first on Battleship Pretension.

The First Omen, the sixth film in a nearly-fifty-year-old film series, on the face of things, has no reason to be exceptional. All the objective things you can read about it lead to the easy conclusion that it is not. It’s the debut feature from a TV director. It asks a stock question (“ever wonder who gave birth to Damien?”) and assembles a screenplay that answers it in the ways prequels typically do. It is a production of 20th Century Studios, a division of Disney. It’s a $30 million movie; no small potatoes, except if you’re Disney. It’s a line item.

And yet it is completely, arrestingly exceptional – in the commercial space, in the horror space, in the cinematic space altogether.

I will only describe the barest notions of the plot to give us all a reference point – Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) is a young novitiate on the brink of taking her vows, who travels to Rome to join a church dedicated to helping desperate women give birth. Most of the children wind up under their care in the orphanage. But something feels unsteady, not only in the church itself, but in Margaret’s mind. She makes reference to trouble she had as a child. She saw things that weren’t there. She heard things that didn’t speak. She was tied to the bed a lot. There’s a girl at this church who has much the same troubles; she brings back a lot of memories. There’s unrest in the streets; itself an echo of an interior state. There’s a Big Plot behind it all, of course, that I won’t spoil here because it’s inventive enough to be worth discovering but also a machination to get at a feeling, as Big Plots tend to be. I will say it is refreshingly candid about where its revelations are headed. It is rightfully confident that it can stun without surprise. That it can use the mystery plot not to answer itself, but as a maze into a soul.

Under the masterful direction of Arkasha Stevenson (in collaboration with cinematographer Aaron Morton, composer Mark Korven, editors Amy E. Duddleston and Bob Murawski, sound designers Ric Schnupp and Jussi Tegelman and mixer Emanuela Cotellessa, a cast discussed below), The First Omen is a symphonic portrait of a mind unraveling spiritually, under the thumb of an oppressive religious regime, and beyond the ordinary more-explicable space of mental illness. It explores the feeling of your body being not your own, and not even because someone took it from you, but because it was never yours to begin with. Margaret is at once intensely valued for a single thing she can do, and utterly disposable the second she does it. It is almost too trite to note that this is how huge swaths of society regard women, and have always regarded women, not because putting nouns or adjectives around it like “society” or “patriarchy” don’t accurately describe the fact of things, but because words suggest a temporary state to something that has been abjectly permanent for the whole of human history. Just look at the art on the walls of the church. They’ve been doing this for centuries.

That is the domain The First Omen is functioning in. It is unimportant that it is a piece of commercial cinema. Its acceptances of commercial requirements are unusually few anyway – an unnecessary tease at the end, a few nods to its franchise legacy. Its terror is drawn from things that run deeper than what’s scary. Forget about jump scares, we’re not even talking about that, though it can get its startle on just fine when it wants to. Scariness is temporary. It’s a nightmare you’ll wake from. The First Omen’s horror works in tandem with a state of existence that may well be immutable.

It’s not that it’s grotesque, though it is – there are images here I have never seen in a film, abstract emotional terrors given concrete form, as great horror cinema has always provided. It’s not that it’s beautiful, though it is – the orchestration of bodies, light, suggestion more than resolution, and resonant images more than “shots.” It is, to a valuable degree, the total union of disciplines given over to the human face, and everything it can say without words, what a voice can say beyond those words, and what a performer – and there are several truly exceptional ones (among the most impactful: Free, Maria Caballero, Bill Nighy, Sonia Braga, Charles Dance, Eugenia Delbue, Ishtar Currie-Wilson) – can convey with the posture of their body in a certain frame, with a certain lens, under certain lighting. What can a painting say about the soul? That is the level this team is thinking on.

Margaret’s apartment, which she shares with fellow novitiate Luz (Caballero), swims in light that flows in from the street and lulls her into comfort and complacency. Reluctant to go to a nightclub and fearful of her own sexuality, the scene ends with a half-second shot of her licking a man’s face. Put her in a room alone, and she’ll hear only whispers. Settle her face to face with someone else, their gaze will draw something out of her she’s desperate to bury. Watch how Free’s body language and expressions gradually open up as the film goes on. Watch the faces she’s paired against and how they draw focus. How do those decisions build our sympathies, and to what end? One of the most pivotal moments of the film is played on Free’s back. She is hunched over, the camera creeping ever closer, as a voice emits from her we’ve never quite heard. Can we still trust her? Its aesthetic choices are not done for cleverness or showcase – though lord, what a showcase – but for what they draw out about character, theme, mood, and the abstract space in between them all in which cinema truly catches fire.

The First Omen is playing on 35mm in eight cities – Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Atlanta, Dallas, Portland, Cambridge, and Ann Arbor. I’m not here to keep gates and say there’s only one way you should see it. I can simply say the print they played at the Aero here in Los Angeles on Monday had never been shown before, and it was stunning.

The post The First Omen: Symphonic Terror, by Scott Nye first appeared on Battleship Pretension.

The post The First Omen: Symphonic Terror, by Scott Nye appeared first on Battleship Pretension.

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