Storytelling is a life force in Night of the Kings. This thrilling and genre-bending prison flick from Philippe Lacôte mesmerises through the power of a good tale. Night of the Kings, which is an early contender to watch in the Best International Feature Oscar race as the official submission for the Ivory Coast, reminds us that stories are in our bones. Storytelling is an act of preservation and survival as this wild odyssey shows with its urgently captivating yarn.
Lacôte’s film sees a young man, played by Koné Bakary, taken to MACA. It’s the nation’s largest prison. Quiet and unassuming, the new inmate listens intently as the warden questions him. He scans the room like a regular Keyser Söze, observing small details, much like he did on the way in. (Note the posters on the exterior walls and the text they contain.) The guards soon lead him through the crowded corridors of the prison. Despite the many men, our protagonist is no longer anonymous.
The prison’s unofficial ruler, Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu from Les Misérables) sees the new addition’s arrival as a fortuitously timed omen. The day is the night of the red moon, an event for which he’s long been waiting. Blackbeard quickly dubs the young man “Roman” and appoints him MACA’s new storyteller.
Roman, quiet and introverted, doesn’t understand his new status. “What is this storyteller?” he asks his gender-fluid cellmate (Gbazy Yves Landry). Nobody quite tells Roman his destiny but they all know what it entails. Lacôte moves from the prison floor to the chamber from which the guards keep a watchful eye. They, too, know what Blackbeard plans for the night of the red moon. Blackbeard, ailing and ready to pass his crown, seeks a blood sacrifice before MACA finds his successor.
A Tale of Kings
Roman only learns his fate when the leaders summon him to step atop a box and tell a tale for the crowd. Standing before enrapt onlookers, Roman spins a yarn about a boy named Zama. His tale is quick and concise. He’s a regular Hemingway with his sparsity for words. The onlookers enjoy Roman’s story about Zama’s fatal encounter with an unruly mob, which doesn’t bode well for our storyteller.
Building a good story requires an aptitude for world-building and Lacôte and his team pull a viewer into the prison’s dank interior. Cinematographer Tobie Marier Robitaille, one of the Canuck credits in this Canadian co-pro (a first-ever with the Ivory Coast), brilliantly captures the intensity of the evening, letting the eerie hues of the blood moon accentuate the stakes in Roman’s tale. The tension simmers, ready to erupt with the climax of Roman’s tale. Robitaille’s camera guides the jarring shifts in tone as Roman’s audience turns its attention into participation. An off-kilter view from the podium notes the first hint of violence and bloodlust.
A fellow inmate (Denis Lavant in a novel cameo) nudges Roman to expand his tale. Here’s where the gravity of storytelling sets in. Roman realizes that his life only lasts as long as his story does. Roman needs to be like Donna Tartt and find superfluous words and pointless tangents to pad his story. If he finishes his tale before the red moon sets, Blackbeard gets his sacrifice.
Griot and God
Night of the Kings draws upon the tradition of the griot, a West African storyteller whose role elevates leaders and kings. It’s no coincidence, either, that the protagonist’s name, Roman, shares the French word for “book.” Rather than losing his neck, Roman cracks the metaphorical spine on Zama’s story. He embellishes the tale with an origins story that captivates his audience. The fish gets bigger and bigger as Zama’s life traverses generations and realms. Cue some militia and then some warring tribal leaders with magical forces.
However, the once-quiet Roman proves himself a natural raconteur. Bakary also has a natural presence before the camera and commands the screen. Good storytelling is equal parts charisma and dramatic effect, and the young actor inflicts Roman’s oration with survivalist instincts. Every dramatic pause, every gesture, and every suspenseful intonation extends his life further. His story captivates the crowd as inmates begin to interact with him like a chorus. They enact pantomimes and dances, setting the stage for the ritual sacrifice to follow.
Lacôte’s film intersects Roman’s story with the larger geopolitical tensions that inspire it. Roman partly draws on his roots as he brings Zama back home to provide closure for both their tales. Night of the Kings lets Roman’s own origin story breathe between the words of his tale. Evoking Fernando Meirelles’s City of God in its dazzling and dizzying portrait of youth on the streets—and, in one scene, name-checking it directly—Night of the Kings pulses with the same thrill of discovery as the 2002 film did. Lacôte’s film is a tautly crafted and lean production that leaves a viewer hanging upon every word. It transports viewers through realms and eons, letting the gravity of the prison’s rough interior hit harder each time. It’s a lean story masterfully told.