'Night of the Kings' Is a Riveting Story About Storytelling Itself Directed by Philippe Lacôte

Starring Bakary Koné, Steve Tientcheu, Jean Cyrille Digbeu
'Night of the Kings' Is a Riveting Story About Storytelling Itself Directed by Philippe Lacôte
Night of the Kings (La nuit des rois) is a tour de force, but, seemingly impossibly, it's more than that — it's so subtly brilliant that the elegant French of the phrase becomes a clunky descriptor. Night of the Kings is unlike anything you might have seen on the mainstream Western film landscape, and so it's difficult to find the language to describe it with a measure of justice, though this shouldn't prevent us from trying. A film that reinvents the act of storytelling itself, Night of the Kings reintroduces movement to myths and reminds us of the communal power of our stories. 

Directed by Philippe Lacôte (Run, African Metropolis), the film begins with a young man (Bakary Koné) entering MACA, a prison nestled within a forest in Abidjan, Ivory Coast's capital, where Lacôte grew up. MACA is introduced as the only prison in the world ruled by its inmates, particularly Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), the reigning Dangoro. MACA's inmates are themselves ruled by a hierarchy with an intricate code of law and conduct. At the top of this hierarchy is the Dangoro, who presides over MACA until he falls ill, at which point he must kill himself. The dying Blackbeard carries an oxygen tank, the tinny clanking of which announces him before his own powerful figure can.

The day the young man arrives, Blackbeard singles him out as "Roman," storyteller. The Roman's job is to tell the inmates a story on the night of the red moon, which happens to be the night of Roman's arrival. The already bewildered Roman is further confounded by this new assignment. As the night wears on, two other men (Abdoul Karim Konaté and Jean Cyrille Digbeu) compete for the position of Dangoro, Blackbeard succumbs to his fate, and Roman gathers that if he finishes his tale before the red moon sets, he will be murdered. And so, Roman weaves a tale of Zama King, an outlaw, which is essentially Roman's own tale.

Lacôte's directorial hand is subtle in many ways. Without belabouring any particular point or taking the viewer's intelligence for granted, he lets the dynamics of the prison's hierarchy unfold as characters move across frames. The camera doesn't linger too long on any particular scene in the prison, not even on any particular character. This sounds dizzying, but it really isn't, because everything continues to be anchored by our protagonist, Roman. This economy of the camera translates to economy with regards to characters and an elegance in narration. We Lacôte's brilliant subtlety in how he depicts news being spread throughout MACA: we see hands passing notes, we hear hushed whispers like a game of broken telephone informing each other of the consequences of the red moon. In this way, the viewer learns the prison's workings all as Roman becomes privy to his fate. 

The film is fluid in narration — an interesting feat considering this is a movie about the power of storytelling. We're taken away from the main story as various events occur within the prison, but everything circles back in the end. Roman is like MACA's Scheherazade, mining his life for a story and turning it into a towering tale of cunning borne from desperation

Magical realism is dotted throughout the battle scenes in Roman's tale, with metamorphosing Kings and Queens a blind, prophesying father. These scenes of Western African warfare and culture — we see the Queen (Laetitia Ky) screened off from the soldiers as she gracefully eats among her procession — are beautifully choreographed and delicately costumed. 

Deft choreography isn't just limited to battle scenes. As Roman tells his tale standing atop a crate in the inmates' shared living quarters, around him a few inmates act out, spontaneously, bits of his story. They move literally around Roman, performing acrobatics as they act out the characters and even a scorpion, all in a manner reminiscent of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Punctuating Roman's story are communal songs the inmates sing to mourn the loss of Koby, Blackbeard's second-in-command, and the loss of Blackbeard himself. There are so many tales-within-tales, showing the viewer how MACA, with its unique laws, goes about myth-making — that is, explaining the movements of the Earth through movement itself.   

Lacôte relies on his actors — each and every single one of whom delivers a pitch-perfect performance — to illustrate his tale about tales. The movements of the camera, of the characters, and of the stories themselves, flow like the ocean along which the Queen walks in Roman's tale — flow like a well-rehearsed ballet. Ultimately, with Night of the Kings, Lacôte proves that a visually stunning film can also be narratively strong, showing us the symbiotic relationship between movement and words. As Roman weaves his story to stay alive, the prisoners drink up his words, and so do we, forgetting that these worlds are all contained within the walls of a prison in the middle of the forest.

Night of the Kings opens in select theatres March 12. (AXIA Films)