Review: Night of the Kings / La Nuit des Rois by Philippe Lacôte

Night of the Kings
La Nuit des Rois
by Philippe Lacôte

A France, Côte d'Ivoire, Canada and Senegal co-production

After Venice and the Toronto Film Festival, Philippe Lacôte's Night of the Kings has moved on to conquer New York City. 

La nuit des rois
Image Courtesy of TIFF

A young pickpocket (Koné Bakary), is incarcerated in the giant La MACA prison, the largest in Côte d’Ivoire. The prison offers a hostile atmosphere, where the guards have long given up keeping order and the prisoners run the show, albeit confined within the prison walls. They dance, sing, and mingle at will in a common area called The Jungle. 

There is a violent power struggle between Lord Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), who runs things, and the younger leaders of other factions. Blackbeard is old and infirm, and he knows he can't hold on forever. But, he does want to hold on long enough to leave on his own terms. 

la nuit des rois
Image courtesy of TIFF

Blackbeard designates the newcomer as the new storyteller - the griot - called Roman (novel in French). On the night of the red moon, Roman must tell a story. We gather eventually that he's buying time for old Blackbeard à la Scheherazade, but perhaps also for himself...

The confines of the prison are visually spare - an old, run down structure. The prisoners themselves make up most of the scenery. They're perplexing, menacing, quixotic. Why do they value the stories so much, and why must Roman continue until dawn?

la nuit des rois
Image courtesy of TIFF

Sometimes, the narrative flashes outside the prison to scenes  from his story that occur outside its walls. Other aspects of his stories are fleshed out by eccentric performance art as done by the prisoners, who listen in rapt attention.

It's atmospheric, and in eschewing a traditional kind of movie storytelling, Lacôte emphasises the power of story. There's a growing sense of tension, and reality and magic blend, as we are as much in the dark about the nature of the ritual as Roman himself. 

It's an unusual approach to storytelling that makes for an absorbing film.