DIRECTED BY: Philippe Lacôte
STARRING: Bakary Koné, Steve Tientcheu, Jean Cyrille Digbeu, Issaka Sawadogo, Abdoul Karim Konaté, Macel Anzian, Rasmané Ouédraogo, Laetitia Ky and Denis Lavant
A young man is sent to “La Maca”, a prison in the middle of the Ivorian forest ruled by its inmates. As tradition goes with the rising of the red moon, he is designated by the Boss to be the new “Roman” and must tell a story to the other prisoners. Learning what fate awaits him, he begins to narrate the mystical life of the legendary outlaw named “Zama King” and has no choice but to make his story last until dawn.
Night of the Kings (also known as La Nuit des rois) is a prison drama film and Ivory Coast’s submission for the Best International Feature Film category in the 93rd Academy Awards this year. We follow a young pickpocket as he is sent to the MACA prison in Abidjan, a world with its own codes and law. One of the laws cemented at the MACA is that when the ‘Dangoro’ (the supreme master of the prison) falls ill and can no longer govern, he must take his own life. The day the young pickpocket arrives, he is deemed the new ‘Roman’, a storyteller that is to tell tales to his fellow prisoners. With the red moon indicating the ‘Night of the Roman’, the newly named ‘Roman’ must tell a story to the rest of the inmates and when he learns of what fate awaits him once he finishes, he must make the story last until dawn as another inmate orchestrates a plot in order to become the new ‘Dangoro’.
I went in pretty much blind when I sat down to watch the film, I only knew that a few critic I follow held it in high regard towards their end of year lists and after watching it’s easy to see why. From the opening shot giving us a Birdseye view of the forest before we finally see the MACA Prison located right in the middle of the vast green surrounding it, and what transpires during the rest of the films hour and a half runtime, we’re transported to a place that exists in its own unique world of law and almost spiritual rule. The prison is ruled by current Dangoro, Blackbeard, is ill, relying on an oxygen tank to help him breathe. According to the code within the prison, that means he must step down…and take his own life. Upon looking at the new inmate brought into MACA, he deems him the new Roman, much to the bemusement of the young pickpocket, unaware of the code and traditions that exist within this world. We never learn of the young man’s name going into the prison, only that he is in some way involved/linked with the recent murder of local criminal Zama King, taken out by a gang known as Microbes. There’s so much going on with Night of the Kings that it feels like a stage play given the big screen treatment, its Shakespearean in how the narrative is structured, as with the ‘Night of the Roman’ underway, there’s a power struggle going on with Blackbeard’s right-hand Half-Mad, and other inmate Lass, eyeing up taking the ‘Dangoro’ title.
What makes Night Of The Kings really special however is its world-building of the law and codes that exist within the MACA prison, as well as how the art of storytelling is front and centre here and how effective it can be, as we witness Roman describe certain details within the story about Zama, leading to inmates participating and enhancing the story through vocalising their engagement with Roman’s tale and the twists and turns he provides during the story, a few inmates begin to sing songs about Zama on the spin, and even performance art is brought forward here when Roman describes something in the middle of the story a few will jump into the empty space and perform that action. While the characters are pretty-thin layered and just serve the story, it somehow doesn’t diminish the film in the way than it would say a standard Hollywood studio production. Blackbeard feels like a commanding figure and has this aurora around him as he walks down the small-spaced corridors with the rest of the inmates upon engaging face-to-face with the soon-to-be crowned Roman, and we see that the officers that seem to serve as placeholders at the prison, are held up in an office, with only a slit on the wall as any means of seeing what the inmates are up safely during the night of the red moon.
Lacôte directs the film superbly, especially in how he frames within the prison setting and making it feel larger-than-life, with some wonderful imagery captured by cinematographer Tobie Marier-Robitaille. The costume design by Hanna Sjödin and makeup by Soussaba Kouyaté are also worth highlighting here, particularly when the Roman’s story takes us back to the 19th century, where kings and queens fought to expand their kingdoms. It’s also in that tale is where I can only have a minor nitpick with the film is its execution of the fantastical element of the story with its use of visual effects as The Queen confronts her brother on the battlefield. The performances from the ensemble are great here, for me the majority of them I’ve never seen before with exception of Denis Lavant, who has a small role as Silence. Bakary Koné gives a really good performance as ‘Roman’, a character we don’t know much about but you can’t help but root for as he tries to navigate and drag the story out until dawn in order to survive. Other notable performances include Steve Tientcheu as Blackbeard, and Jean Cyrille Digbeu as Half-Mad.
A film that highlights the power of storytelling and performance art, Night of the Kings is a fascinating film to explore the world-building within the MACA prison, featuring committed performances from the ensemble cast. A must see whenever it becomes available near you.