Review: ‘The First Omen,’ starring Nell Tiger Free, Tawfeek Barhom, Sonia Braga, Ralph Ineson and Bill Nighy

April 4, 2024

by Carla Hay

Nell Tiger Free and Nicole Sorace in “The First Omen” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“The First Omen”

Directed by Arkasha Stevenson

Some language in Italian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Rome, in 1971, the horror film “The First Omen” (a prequel to “The Omen” movie series) features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young American nun arrives at a convent in Rome to take her final vows and finds out sinister things are happening at the convent. 

Culture Audience: “The First Omen” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “The Omen” movie series and horror movies that blend religious teachings with body horror.

Ralph Ineson in “The First Omen” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

Creepy, gruesome and suspenseful, “The First Omen” has as much to say about demonic possession as it does about institutional control of female bodies. Impressive acting and some unpredictability make this horror movie one of the better “Omen” films. The end of “The First Omen” makes it clear that there’s a lot of potential for more storylines for multiple characters who are introduced in “The First Omen.”

Directed by Arkasha Stevenson, “The First Omen” is her feature-film directorial debut. Stevenson, Tim Smith and Keith Thomas wrote “The First Omen” screenplay. “The Omen” franchise started with the 1976 movie “The Omen,” which spawned sequels, TV series and a 2006 movie remake. In 1976’s “The Omen” (directed by Richard Donner and written by Davd Seltzer), a U.S. ambassador to Italy named Robert Thorn (played by Gregory Peck) and his wife Katherine Thorn (played by Lee Remick) adopted a son named Damien (played by Harvey Spencer Stephens), and the parents are horrified to discover that Damien is a child of the devil. “The First Omen” shows how Damien was born and there is more to the story than what many viewers might assume.

“The First Omen” (which takes place in 1971) begins with a slow-burn harrowing scene of two Catholic priests having a confessional conversation at a church in an unnamed location, as one of the priests talks about a woman who “volunteered” to be impregnated. But what really happened is shown on screen: A masked woman is strapped to a table and looking like a very unwilling volunteer. An elderly British priest named Father Harris (played by Charles Dance) is telling this story to a middle-aged Irish priest named Father Brennan (played by Ralph Ineson), who listens as Father Harris says about the impregnated woman: “She wasn’t conceived naturally.”

Father Harris, who claims to be one of the people involved in getting this mystery woman pregnant, adds this information about how the woman was impregnated: “What I can tell you is that the pregnancy happened quickly.” Father Brennan thinks that Father Harris has told him this story to ask for forgiveness. Father Harris says with an eerie smirk: “You think I want to be forgiven? It’ll be all over. You’ll understand soon enough.”

Father Harris then steps outside and something bizarre happens: Shards of stained glass come plummeting down on his head. Father Harris seems to be uninjured, until the back of his head shows a large, gaping wound that he cannot survive. Before he dies, Father Harris gives a disturbing smile that shows his teeth are bloody.

This scene sets the tone for the rest of “The First Omen,” which has some uniquely effective horror images and scenarios, along with some horror clichés. Although “The First Omen” takes place in 1971, many of the movie’s themes are timeless. It’s not a preachy movie, but there are some very obvious messages about discontent with government, as well as how much religion can or should have control in people’s lives.

Because it’s not a secret that “The First Omen” is about how the anti-Christ known as Damien was born, much of the mystery in the movie is about who will give birth to Damien. Observant viewers will figure out the answer to the mystery when the birthdate of a certain character is shown. The movie is not as simple and straightforward as it first appears to be.

After the scene showing Father Harris’ death, “The First Omen” then takes place in Rome (where the movie was filmed) and shows the arrival of a young American nun in her early 20s named Margaret (played by Nell Tiger Free), nicknamed Maggie. She is warmly greeted by a British clergyman named Cardinal Lawrence (played by Bill Nighy), who meets her at the train station. Margaret has arrived to live at a convent, where she will be taking her final vows.

Cardinal Lawrence, who invited Margaret to Rome, is the one who will officiate the vow ceremony. As she and Cardinal Lawrence drive through the streets of Rome, they see crowds of activists (mostly young adults) holding protest marches in the streets and sometimes blocking traffic. Cardinal Lawrence explains to Margaret that the activists are protesting unfair wages. He laments to Margaret that the younger generation is turning against religious institutions and “no longer looks to us for guidance. Perhaps you’ll win back their trust.”

It’s later revealed through conversations that Margaret grew up as an orphan in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Margaret has lived a very sheltered existence and is a virgin who has no experience with dating. The thought of doing something such as going to a nightclub terrifies her, because she thinks it’s sinful activity. Margaret is devoutly religious and does a lot of fervent praying every time she thinks she commits a sin, no matter how minor the sin might be.

Margaret will soon have her boundaries tested when she meets her free-spirited Italian roommate named Luz Valez (played by Maria Caballero), a novitiate who is also in her 20s and is about to take her final vows. The first time that Margaret and Luz meet, Luz has just arrived in their room after a night of partying. Luz is dressed in a black leather miniskirt and is wearing fishnet stockings.

Luz tells a shocked Margaret that there’s nothing wrong with having fun and showing off their bodies before they take their final vows, since the nun outfits they have to wear will cover up ther bodies. Luz convinces a reluctant Margaret to dress in a sexy outfit, put on makeup, and go with Luz to a nightclub. At the club, Margaret and Luz immediately attract the attention of two young men named Paolo (played by Andrea Arcangeli) and Alfonzo (played by Guido Quaglione), who offer to buy Margaret and Luz some drinks.

Eventually they pair off: Luz and Alfonzo end up dancing together, while Margaret and Paolo start off with an awkward conversation but loosen up with each other when they both find out that they are fans of Barbra Streisand. Margaret eventually begins drinking some alcohol too and begins dancing seductively with Paolo. Based on the way Margaret acts, this is the first time she has had these type of experiences.

The convent operates Vizzardeli Orphanage, which is the home of 62 girls, mostly in the age range of 6 to 11 years old. Margaret is one of the nuns who teach the orphans. Margaret strikes up a friendly acquaintance with a young priest named Father Gabriel (played by Tawfeek Barhom), who often visits the convent and who seems to know more than he is telling. Someone who isn’t very friendly to Margaret is Sister Anjelica (played by Ishtar-Currie Wilson), who has a very cold attitude to Margaret and who appears to be mentally ill.

Margaret soon begins to notice strange things are happening at the convent, which is ruled by an abbess named Sister Silva (played by Sonia Braga), a stereotypically stern nun. Not only does Margaret have nightmares, she also sees some terrifying things happening in real life. A few of those things have to do with what Margaret witnesses in the maternity ward’s delivery room.

One of the orphans is slightly older than the rest. Her name is Carlita Skianna (played by Nicole Sorace), who is about 14 or 15 years old. Carlita is quiet and appears to be a troubled child. Margaret slowly beings to get Carlita to communicate with her, but Margaret sees that Carlita is being secretly punished on orders of Sister Silva. Carlita frequently draws illustrations with some unsettling images. Based on one of the illustrations, Margaret begins to suspect that Carlita might be pregnant.

The release of “The First Omen” happened just two weeks after the release of “Immaculate,” another horror movie about a young American virgin nun arriving at a Catholic convent in Italy to take her final vows and then finding out about a very unholy pregnancy. Both movies also have issues about women losing control of their bodies when powerful forces want to dictate what can be done with their bodies. However, “The First Omen” is a genuinely scarier horror film than the somewhat campy “Immaculate.”

“The First Omen” starts of a bit slow and repetitive, but the second half of the movie is much better than the first half. “The First Omen” benefits greatly from Free’s riveting and believable performance as Margaret, who transforms from vulnerable and naïve to someone whose innocence is lost as she has to learn to defend herself against forces of evil. There’s an intense scene toward the end of the movie that is absolutely stunning in the physical and emotional acting involved to make the scene as effective as it is.

“The First Omen” (which has gorgeously Gothic-inspired cinematography by Aaron Morton) also explains why Damian was conceived in the first place. This explanation might be controversial with some religious conservatives. What makes “The First Omen” intriguing is how this movie opens up the possibility of spinoffs or sequels for characters whose stories need to be told. “The First Omen” succeeds not only as a prequel but as a gateway for another potentially fascinating world in “The Omen” franchise.

20th Century Studios will release “The First Omen” in U.S. cinemas on April 5, 2024.

Review: ‘Fatima’ (2020), starring Joaquim de Almeida, Goran Višnjić, Stephanie Gil, Jorge Lamelas, Lúcia Moniz, Alejandra Howard, Sônia Braga and Harvey Keitel

August 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jorge Lamelas, Alejandra Howard and Stephanie Gil in “Fatima” (Photo by Claudio Iannone/Picturehouse)

“Fatima” (2020)

Directed by Marco Pontecorvo

Culture Representation: Taking place in Portugal mostly in 1917 and briefly in 1989, the religious drama “Fatima” features a cast of mostly Portuguese characters (although many of the actors portraying them are from other countries, such as Spain and Brazil), with one American, representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash:  Controversy ensues after two girls and a boy claim to see visions of the Virgin Mary in Fátima, Portugal.

Culture Audience: “Fatima” will appeal mostly to people interested in Catholic history or stories of religious miracles, but the movie takes such a dull and repetitive approach to the subject matter that it might turn off viewers looking for a more substantial film.

Lúcia Moniz, Marco D’Almeida and Stephanie Gil in “Fatima” (Photo by Claudio Iannone/Picturehouse)

Do you believe in miracles? The answer to that question might determine how inclined you might be to watch the religious drama “Fatima,” which is based on the true story of three Catholic children in Portugal who claimed to communicate with the Virgin Mary, beginning in 1917. Regardless if viewers have any religious or spiritual beliefs or not, the movie is so boring that it treats the subject matter as if should be told as a repetitive and droning religious lecture instead of an intriguing story with richly detailed characters. Unfortunately, director Marco Pontecorvo infuses the movie with too much tacky melodrama that cheapens the impact of the “miracle scenes.”

Most of the movie takes place in 1917, when Portugal was fighting in World War I, but parts of the movie are intercut with scenes that take place in 1989. In the 1989 scenes, an elderly Portuguese Catholic nun named Sister Lúcia (played by Sônia Braga) is being interviewed by an American visitor named Professor Nichols (played by Harvey Keitel) at her convent in Coimbra, Portugal. Professor Nichols is a religion scholar who doesn’t believe in miracles, while Sister Lúcia is famous for saying that she experienced miracles.

Professor Nicholas is visiting Sister Lúcia to ask her about her miracle experiences that she had as a child, when she and two of her cousins were at the center of a religious controversy. The professor and the nun agree to disagree on whether or not what she experienced was real. And they admit that have both have a fascination with people who have views that are opposite of their own opinions. Sister Lúcia laments to Professor Nichols that people still haven’t learned from the messages of peace that she got from her heavenly visions.

The movie’s flashbacks to 1917 show that 10-year-old Lúcia (played by Stephanie Gil) was a spirited and fairly obedient child who lived with her family in the village of Aljustrel, on the outskirts of Fátima, Portugal. Lúcia frequently accompanies her strict and religious mother Maria (played by Lúcia Moniz) to the village for shopping trips. Maria and Lúcia also gather in the village square for announcements about which local soldiers have died or have been declared missing. These tension-filled and emotional scenes demonstrate the harsh realities of war experienced by the soldiers’ loved ones who are left behind to worry about the soldiers’ well-being and fate.

“Fatima” doesn’t waste time showing that Lúcia has the ability to see religious visions. In one of the movie’s early scenes, Lúcia is in a cave, where she not only sees and hears a female angel, but Lúcia also sees visions of her bother Ti Manuel, also known as Manuel (played by Elmano Sancho), who is a soldier in the war. This scene is an example of the simplistic dialogue and schmaltzy direction that plague most of this movie.

“Who are you?” Lúcia asks the angel. The angel replies, “I am the angel of peace. I am the angel of Portugal.” While Lúcia sees terrible visions of a battlefield, she calls out desperately to Manuel, while doom and gloom music plays as if Lúcia is in a haunted house. “They don’t seem to want to stop,” the angel says of the people fighting in the war. The angel then leads Lúcia in a prayer session.

Lúcia comes from a family of farmers, so she helps out as a shepherd. One day, while she and her two younger cousins Jacinta (played by Alejandra Howard) and Francisco (played by Jorge Lamelas) are outside playing in a remote field in Fátima, they see a vision of the Virgin Mary (played by Joana Ribeiro). Actually, Lúcia sees the Virgin Mary first, and then Jacinta and Francisco see the Virgin Mary too.

Lúcia is the one with the best communication with the Virgin Mary, since the Virgin Mary speaks directly with Lúcia at all times, while Jacinta and Francisco (who are siblings) sometimes can’t hear what the Virgin Mary is saying. The Virgin Mary tells the three children that they must meet her at that location at the same time, every month for the next six months. Lúcia and Francisco tell Jacinta to keep this vision a secret, but Jacinta tells her parents, and soon the word spreads, causing alarm with some of the adults in the area.

Lúcia’s mother Maria is immediately skeptical that the children saw the Virgin Mary. She takes Lúcia to see a priest named Father Ferreira (played by Joaquim de Almeida), who also doubts that Lúcia is telling the truth. He warns Maria that even if Lúcia saw any visions, these visions could be the devil working in disguise. This thought makes Maria more determined to get Lúcia to try to go back to being a “normal” child, especially when Maria thinks that Lúcia could be branded as mentally ill or possessed by the devil.

Maria’s methods of controlling Lúcia are sometimes harsh and abusive, since she punishes Lúcia by slapping her and making threats, such as telling Lúcia that if these visions ruin the family, Maria will never forgive Lúcia. Maria also becomes irrational when she tells Lúcia that if Manuel doesn’t come back to the family, it will all be Lúcia’s fault, as if Lúcia has some kind of control over what happens during the war. Lúcia, Jacinta and Francisco also risk getting punished by their parents because they are determined to keep their promise to meet the Virgin Mary at the same place and time, every month for the next six months.

Lúcia’s father António (played by Marco D’Almeida) tries to be more understanding of the situation and doesn’t react as angrily as his wife Maria does. But António’s patience starts to wear thin after the word spreads of these miracle visions, and all the publicity starts to negatively affect the family’s well-being and safety. Crowds of people flock to the area and walk all over the family’s farming territory, which thereby ruin the crops that the family relies on for their food and income.

Lúcia’s family also starts to experience random strangers coming to their home unannounced to see the “miracle child.” Many of these strangers are on a quest to have their problems solved just by visiting Lúcia, because they believe that Lúcia’s visions come with special healing powers. Maria reacts by telling these unwelcome visitors that they have the wrong house and angrily sends them away. Maria then blames Lúcia for causing these problems for the family.

Meanwhile, Fátima’s ambitious mayor Arturo (played by Goran Višnjić) is inclined to doubt the stories of Virgin Mary visions and miracles happing at the location where the three kids see the Virgin Mary. For example, when a boy with paralyzed legs begins to have slight movement of his legs after vising the “miracle site,” Arturo says that it’s not a miracle because doctors had predicted that the legs would eventually heal with the right attitude and medical therapy.

Arturo is also concerned about how the crowds have turned his city into a public spectacle. He conspires to punish Lúcia, Franciso, and Jacinta, because he thinks that if the stories are all a hoax, it will ruin the reputation of not just the city of Fatima but also his own reputation. And he gets even more anxious about how to deal with the situation when higher-ups in the Catholic Church start to investigate these “miracle sightings.” A visit from Monsenhor Quaresma (played by Joao D’Ávila) ensures that Arturo will be thinking more about his career ambitions rather than any religious messages that come from the Virgin Mary.

One of the biggest problems with “Fatima” is the uneven quality of acting from the three children playing Lúcia, Francisco and Jacinta. Gil (as Lúcia) is an experienced film actor, while Lamelas (as Franciso) and Howard (as Jacinta) make their feature-film debuts in “Fatima.” That lack of experience shows in Lamelas and Howard’s acting, which isn’t at the same level as Gil’s acting talent. It wouldn’t be such a big issue if these three children weren’t at the center of the movie.

The wooden acting in the movie (and not just by some of the children) isn’t the only problem. The screenplay (written by director Pontecaro, Valerio D’Annunzio and Barbara Nicolosi) gets stuck on this monotonous repetition of occurrences: The three kids see the visions. Some of the skeptical adults get annoyed because they don’t believe the children. More people show up to try to witness miracles in person. And the kids getting blamed for anything that goes wrong.

All the characters are written as fairly two-dimensional. The movie doesn’t give enough screen time to Professor Nichols and Sister Lúcia, the only characters in the movie that show hints of having any real depth. It would have been interesting to hear Professor Nichols and Sister Lúcia debate their different opinions over what happened to Lúcia in 1917, when she first reported her visions of the Virgin Mary. But that type of dialogue is avoided in the movie when Professor Nichols tells Sister Lúcia that he doesn’t want to offend her by expressing his skeptical views to her.

And although religious beliefs are a serious matter to a lot of people, “Fatima” pours on such over-the-top schmaltz that some viewers might laugh at how hokey the movie’s scenes are in portraying these religious beliefs. The stilted and unrealistic dialogue, the substandard visual effects and the movie’s overall lumbering tone stifle any unique and high-quality creativity that this film could have had. Whether or not people believe that these Virgin Mary visions really happened, “Fatima” does a disservice to the story by presenting the people involved as tedious and forgettable characters instead of fascinating people.

Picturehouse will release “Fatima” in select U.S. cinemas and VOD on August 28, 2020.

Review: ‘Bacurau,’ starring Sônia Braga, Udo Kier and Bárbara Colen

March 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sonia Braga in "Bacurau"
Sônia Braga (center) in “Bacurau” (Photo by Victor Jucá)


Directed by Kleber Mendon​ç​a Filho and Juliano Dornelles

Portuguese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional, rural town of Bacurau, Brazil, this drama/thriller has a diverse cast of characters representing Brazilians, Europeans and Americans from several social classes.

Culture Clash: The citizens of Bacurau face various threats to their existence.

Culture Audience: “Bacurau” will appeal primarily to people who like arthouse cinema about rural South American life that has brutal social commentary underneath some of its violent scenes.

Udo Kier and Sônia Braga in “Bacurau” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Bacurau” is a slow burn of a film that leads up to an intense and violent confrontation that is part Western pulp, part fierce social commentary on the evils of racist colonialism. The movie begins with the arrival of Teresa (played by Bárbara Colen) at her family hometown of Bacurau, a rural village that is so small that it sometimes can’t even be found on a map. She’s wearing a white medical overcoat, not because she’s a medical professional, but because she says it’s for her “protection.” It’s the first sign in the movie that there’s possible danger in Bacurau.

The village is mourning the death of Teresa’s 94-year-old grandmother Carmelita, who was Bacurau’s unofficial matriarch. During the funeral procession held outside, a middle-aged woman named Domingas (played by Sônia Braga) gets upset and curses Carmelita by calling her a “prick,” before she is led away. Why is Domingas so angry at this beloved dead woman who can’t defend herself?

For starters, Domingas is drunk at the funeral. She was a close friend of Carmelita’s, and they had some kind of falling out before she died. And one of the things that Domingas shouts during her funeral outburst is that she hopes that when she dies, she’ll get the kind of grand funeral that Carmelita is getting. Jealous much? Later, Domingas makes a public apology to the townspeople for her tantrum. Now that Carmelita is dead, Domingas has become the top-ranking woman on the town’s social ladder.

As Teresa settles back into the house of her father Plinio (played by Wilson Rabelo), who is Carmelita’s son, she gets reacquainted with a thuggish man named Pacote, also known as Acacio (played by Thomas Aquino), who’s part of a local group of gun-toting outlaws. Their leader is a guy named Lunga (played by Silvero Pereira), who’s gone into hiding because unnamed people are after him. Pacote is one of the few people who knows where Lunga is. And the news gets out to the village that the main highway in Brazil has been shut down and only motorcycles can pass through.

Meanwhile, as the feeling of impending doom slowly takes over the village, the movie takes a closer look at some of the main characters of the story. Teresa and Pacote become lovers, and she basically pledges to be a loyal ally to him and the gang if their lives are threatened. Lunga (who’s become sort of a folk hero in Bacurau) eventually shows up, and he doesn’t look like a typical gang leader who has a reputation for being a vicious killer. He’s a baby-faced guy with a mullet and he isn’t very tall, but what he lacks in a menacing physique, he makes up for with his fearless attitude.

Domingas is a lesbian madam of the town’s prostitutes, who make their money from the locals and some of the men who pass through the town. One of those men is Tony Junior (played by Thardelly Lima), a smarmy politician who has the nerve to show up for a “surprise” visit in a cavalcade of automobiles decorated with campaign slogans and with megaphones asking the villagers to vote for him. He’s brought supplies and books that he plans to distribute to the Bacurau residents, and he tells the camera crew that’s accompanied him to get ready to film this staged charity donation.

The villagers have been tipped off in advance that Tony is going to barrel through their town, so by the time he gets there, the streets are empty and the townspeople have barricaded themselves in their homes. Why are they so angry with him?

As Tony uses the megaphone in the middle of the street, they begin to curse at him and tell him to release the water that the village desperately needs. Tony’s response is to give politician-speak excuses that their requests will take time to go through the correct channels. Before he leaves Bacurau, Tony hires one of Domingas’ prostitutes (a young woman named Sandra, played by Thardelly Lima) to travel back with him. Domingas tells Tony that if anything happens to Sandra, Domingas will “feed his cock to the hens.”

Meanwhile, a drone is flying over parts of Bacurau, and it’s being controlled by a group of white Europeans and Americans, who are using the drone to spy on the locals and track their movements. The group of mostly tourists is led by a German named Michael (played by Udo Kier), who is very familiar with Bacurau.

Around this time, strange things start happening in Bacurau. A parked truck with a water tank ends up being shot with mysterious bullet holes, which have caused the tank to leak out much-needed water. Then, two motorcyclists—a man from São Paulo (played by Antonio Saboia) and a woman from Rio de Janeiro (played by Karine Teles)—arrive in the town wearing garish motorcycle outfits that make it obvious that they’re city dwellers who are showing off. The strangers say that they’re just passing through, but the residents of Bacurau are suspicious. It’s not long before it’s clear why the people of Bacurau don’t trust outsiders.

Although “Bacurau” won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival (in a tie with the French police-brutality drama “Les Misérables”), “Bacurau” is not a movie for everyone. There are many disturbing scenes in the film, which has a level of bloody violence that might be repulsive to some viewers. The murderous mayhem in the movie almost has a video-game quality to it, which is precisely one of the points that the film is trying to make with its underlying social messages. Even though modern technology is used by the movie’s villains, the lust for violence has been around as long as people have sought to conquer other human beings.

Kino Lorber released “Bacurau” in New York City on March 6, 2020. The movie’s theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada will expand to more cities in the subsequent weeks. “Bacurau” was originally released in Brazil in 2019.

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