Though it may be stating the obvious, stay with me here: filmmaking is, at its core, storytelling. Fictional or otherwise, a film is grounded in its narrative; every other creative choice is intended to expand, clarify or otherwise serve that narrative. What happens, then, when the film itself is about storytelling, about the interplay between narrator and audience (on screen and off), about the value and importance of fables, legends and fairy tales? In Philippe Lacôte’s riveting and visceral Night of the Kings, the storytelling itself becomes central to our understanding of the world in which we find ourselves, that of a rural prison in the African country of Ivory Coast, a society fully governed and managed by the inmates themselves.
At the top of the prison’s hierarchy is Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), a towering, intimidating figure who rules with an iron fist and commands the respect of the hundreds of men who call the prison their home. But there are warring factions and threats to his authority, chief among them his own failing health. Code inside the prison is that once a Dangoro is too sick to rule, he must not only abdicate his position but take his own life by way of removing himself from the line of succession. Though he’s tethered to an oxygen tank and moving far slower than he surely did in his younger days, Blackbeard has no interest in removing himself from power. In search of ways to maintain his position, he recruits a new arrival at the prison to keep the rest of the population captivated overnight on the occasion of a red moon, a sort of storytelling ritual called “Night of the Roman.”
The Roman he’s selected (Bakary Koné) is as young and untested as Blackbeard is old and weathered; with wide eyes and a nervous energy, he takes center stage in a common yard in the prison. Neither he or we are quite sure of what will come out of his mouth once he begins, but it’s clear that he has no choice but to weave a story that keeps the hungry, aggressive audience satisfied throughout the night. It’s his life that’s on the line if he finishes before the red moon sets. And so Roman starts, sharing the story of Zama King, a wanted criminal he ran with before finding himself in prison; it soon becomes a sweeping epic that includes an ancient African queen, a battle against her own brother for power and the rough streets of Zama King’s territory known as the Lawless Quarter. Lacôte takes full advantage of his visual medium, transporting us from the dingy walls of the rundown prison to the beaches of Africa and more where Roman’s story unfolds. The juxtaposition of these worlds makes them both all the more striking, the dank darkness of the prison seeming to close in on Roman while the white sand and rich blue waters evoke a world far, far away from his current reality.
As Roman’s story goes on, more than once he seems to run out of narrative, unsure where to take the story next. But his fellow inmates are a rabid audience, and when it’s either keep talking or die at their brutal hands, he finds new threads of the story to weave into what he’s already shared. As his confidence grows, the inmates around him become so engrossed they begin to act out the various moments he’s describing, from evocative native songs about Zama King and his pursuits to strikingly choreographed vignettes of action and confrontation. Their participation in the storytelling takes the whole experience to a next level, as if now they’re all performing for us, not just Roman for the inmates. Layers upon layers upon layers, and each one is more impressive than the last.
One of the true joys of cinema is the sense of discovery that comes with experiencing a film so beautifully crafted, so thoughtfully produced that its full impact is evident only once one can reflect back on what’s just transpired. Lacôte achieves that elusive accomplishment in a film that builds broad and grand worlds, within the prison and without, populated by characters who, though they remain mostly a mystery, are fully formed and worthy of our attention. Roman crafts a captivating story to last him through the night; Lacôte has crafted a superb vehicle to share it with us.
Night of the Kings is now playing in select theaters, including the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.
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