A captivating and original film from Ivory Coast, Night of the Kings has rightly made the Academy Awards shortlist for Best International Picture 2021.
The description ‘captivating’ takes on a double-edged meaning when considering Night of the Kings (La Nuit des Rois), the second feature from Ivorian director Philippe Lacôte.
The film opens with a young man (Bakary Koné) arriving at ‘La MACA’, a prison in the middle of the Ivorian forest. The prison is governed by gangs of inmates, with the prison guards largely watching on ineffectively through a small hole in the wall of the governor’s office. The young man’s arrival that evening coincides with the rise of the red moon and he is selected by Barbe Noir (Steve Tientcheu), the de facto prison leader, to be the new Storyteller (named Roman). Only gradually learning what this means, the young man begins to tell the story of the legendary Ivorian outlaw ‘Zama King’ and stretches his narration through the night, Scheherazade-style. When the night is over both the prison and Roman have arrived at a turning point.
At the start, the audience would be forgiven for thinking that they are about to watch a naïve young man’s journey into a violent, lawless environment where danger is prevalent. The hand-held camera follows various inmates through the corridors and gathering spaces of the prison, bumped by those walking in the other direction, straining to see events over the shoulders of the groups of men – and boys – in front of it. Gang-life in a prison is a constant threat of torment, violence, and death, and our young man seems to be new meat for the animals. Only the strange presence of the lone white inmate named ‘Silence’- a frail, mute man carrying a pet chicken and played superbly by legendary French actor Denis Levant – suggests that the narrative may take a different turn.
While still retaining the menace of the prison, Roman’s storytelling takes inmates on a flight of imagination outside of the walls and into a recounting of Zama King’s life which mingles truth and legend in a magical reality of pre-colonial royalty and the streets of modern-day Abidjan. Some of the inmates become almost a chorus to the storytelling, singing acapella harmonies and providing dance movement to punctuate the events of the story. Both Roman’s story and the prison power challenges happening alongside it are almost Shakespearian in places. Everyone knows their place, few dare to challenge.
The cast is made up of a mixture of professional and non-professional actors, along with singers, dancers, and martial artists. Roman is Bakary Koné’s first acting role, and he perfectly embodies the fear of his new surroundings before finding his feet in the power his poetry has to transform. And audiences may recognise Barbe Noir (Steve Tientcheu) as the Mayor in Ladj Ly’s 2019 film, the Academy Award-nominated Les misérables.
Apart from a short sequence where there is some rather ropey CGI, the whole film is a captivating and intriguing story about the power of stories to free the mind, particularly when the body is constrained.
Night of the Kings is highly recommended, and I look forward to seeing it gain more traction following its release.