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Film Review: Night of the Kings (2021)

Night of the Kings

Writer/Director Philippe Lacôte thrilling Night of the Kings gives us a prison movie unlike any we have seen.  

Night of the Kings much like A Prophet takes the prison picture and upends its conventions and stereotypes.  Philippe Lacôte has given us a riveting film of survival and the vital need for storytelling even in the most hellish of conditions.  

A pickpocket (Bakary Koné) has been placed into the MACA Prison on the Ivory Coast.  Barely into his late teens, he is thrown into the wolves’ den of criminals and men of violence.  Dubbed the newest “Roman” by Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), the Godfather of the prison.  As Roman, the young man must tell a story to his fellow inmates.  As a red moon rises and Roman beginning his story, a power struggle has begun.  With only the cryptic ramblings of Silence (Denis Levant) as his guide, Roman must make sure to keep his story going until dawn.  

Lacôte’s film is as much an elegy to youth as it is about the importance of storytelling and mythmaking.  Roman like any young man faced with the threat of death is fearful at every turn that what he might do will result in violence.  Those threats of violence are as effective as any other film’s displays of violence.  

Roman is thrust into this world as we are.  A world where the men imprisoned are more in control than the guards.  One where customs and political machinations can free you or kill you.  The way that the storytelling gives Roman a lifeline, a way to stave off the violence and threats echoes powerfully throughout the film until its ending moments. 

There is a breathlessness to the visual style that Lacôte and cinematographer Tobie Marier-Robitaille have created.  The camera always in search of information and secrets, always assured and assertive. The camera like a subjective character shows the power struggles within this prison in all its forms.  Lacôte and Marier-Robitaille have created a visually striking film, one that creates its own iconography that will surprise many in its power. 

The best prison movies use the setting as a jumping-off point and Night of the Kings is no different.  The narrative’s dual stories: one of Roman’s survival and the other of the mythic Zama King, perfectly mirror one another in the way that unexpectedly delights.  Lacôte has created an indelible cast of characters headlined by Bakary Koné’s Roman.  Beginning as a scared wisp of a kid one watches as Koné slowly gives Roman his footing and baring’s in a situation as alien to him as it is to us. 

Night of the Kings isn’t about Roman turning the tables, it is about his survival and ensuring he lives another day.  Koné is a true find as he’s magnetic on screen, the way he is able to project his fear and unease is something rarely done as well as he does here.  Fear is something that can oftentimes feel like cowardice and it’s never that here.  Lacôte’s script is more complex and layered.  The way that the narrative unfolds is truly one of the highlights of recent memory.

Even at its end Night of the Kings manages to pull off the unexpected and give us an ending that is assured and optimistic as it is unnerving and pessimistic.  Therein lies the power of Lacôte’s film.  It’s understanding that the world is never one thing but many things at once.  A world where a fable told over hours could save you.  A world where all the power in your grasps cannot save you from the inevitable.  

Night of the Kings is Philippe Lacôte’s announcement as an important filmmaker in world cinema. 

Night of the Kings will be in theatres from 26th February and on-demand from 5th March 2021.