'Night of the Kings' ('La Nuit des rois'): Film Review | Venice 2020

La Nuit des Rois
Venice Film Festival

'Night of the Kings' ('La Nuit des rois')

A storyteller's delight.

Ivorian director Philippe Lacote's second feature, after the Cannes-selected 'Run,' is set inside an Abidjan prison.

In Night of the Kings (La Nuit des rois), a young man thrown into the infamous La Maca prison in Cote d’Ivoire is forced to invent a story that lasts until sunrise or face the consequences like some kind of modern-day Scheherazade. This captivating hybrid of a movie mixes fairy-tale and storytelling elements with a vividly drawn backdrop of heightened realism — no one would mistake this prison for a luxury resort — and relies on images and sounds as much as the human voice to tell its multiple stories.

This is the second fiction feature from Ivorian filmmaker Philippe Lacote, whose Run, with Abdoul Karim Konate and Isaach De Bankole, premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section in 2014. His latest, which stars Konate in a supporting role, is a Venice Horizons selection that’ll make the leap across the pond and screen in Toronto and at NYFF, an impressive hat trick that should jumpstart a long festival run.

The ill-famed prison of La Maca is a massive concrete hellhole on the outskirts of Abidjan, once constructed for 1,500 prisoners but currently holding well over 5,000 people. The penal complex is located in the former national park of Banco and thus surrounded by lush tropical vegetation, while on the inside it looks and feels like an ant colony, with what may at first appear to be chaotic hordes quickly revealing themselves to be highly organized around a single leader.

As is explained early on, the inmates are indeed so organized they basically run the place. Most of the power is concentrated in the hands of the dangoro, a detainee who is designated the prisoners’ chief. Tradition imposes he remains in power until he’s too physically weak to reign, when he’ll kill himself to make room for the next leader. This scenario is exactly what several hotheaded youngsters, headed by Lass (Konate), are hoping will soon happen with the still-imposing current dangoro, Blackbeard (a solemn Steve Tientcheu, the mayor from Oscar nominee Les Miserables). Because despite his name, his beard has actually started graying and clearly Blackbeard isn’t in the best of health anymore.

Continuing his reign as if nothing is the matter, Blackbeard orders that a new arrival (newcomer Kone Bakary, solid) be named the new “Roman,” which is both a first name but also the French word for novel, as in book. The reason for the nickname: Every night there’s a red moon, lamps are lit and the prisoners stay up to listen to the tales from their Roman, the prison’s storyteller, who has to keep going until dawn — or risk the same fate that hung over Scheherazade’s head each night.

So the latest incarnation of Roman, a diffident young man, is forced to invent an epic story on his first night in jail in French, the prison’s lingua franca. He starts hesitatingly, until he remembers that his aunt was a griot, a West African storyteller, and that she went to school with the infamous — but known by the entire prison population! — young grifter Zama King, who grew up “on the Paradise side of the Lawless Quarter,” as the poetic description puts it.

The story-within-the-story has several beginnings and endings and at a certain moment seems to magically stretch back in time from his aunt’s lifetime to an ancient African kingdom, ruled over by a majestic queen (Laetitia Ky, sporting a relatively conservative example of the hair sculptures for which the artist-activist is known). Roman, first haltingly but then, at times, more fluidly, spins his tale, secretly egged on by the sole white detainee, a quiet nutcase nicknamed Silence (Holy Motors’ Denis Lavant doing Denis Lavant).

The other prisoners not only listen, comment and holler, but some of them also act and dance out certain passages, creating unexpected moments of visual poetry that are captured by Quebec-born cinematographer Tobie Marier Robitaille in fluid movements. The images, often in darkly saturated blues and browns, pierced by the flickering ochre light from oil lamps, stand in stark contrast to the staged scenes of the stories that Lacote also mixes in, which often occur in broad daylight. These occasionally have a fantastical edge but thankfully are kept to a minimum, as the decent-but-not-exceptional VFX tend to take the viewer out of the film rather than help elevate its stories.

While the fact that there may be consequences for Roman if he stops telling his story before dawn is nominally used as a source of suspense, the dark destinies of Blackbeard and a prisoner who visits a crossdressing youth (Gbazy Yves Landry) finally linger longer. The main motor of the narrative isn't actually suspense at all, but the sheer force of the various tales themselves and how they keep branching off in different directions only to unexpectedly reconnect or be reinvented and recast.

Lacote generally touches on subjects such as the importance of stories and storytelling as well as the fact that even some of the best stories don’t stand up to close scrutiny. Fernando Meirelles’ kinetic crime-in-the-favelas tale City of God is name-checked, ironically right after a scene that seems to quote another film: Matteo Garrone’s crime-in-Naples tale Gomorrah. All three movies are dynamically told stories about young people trying to survive in a world where crime seems to make more sense than a lot of other options.

And speaking of references: Local audiences and aficionados of West African politics might spy more specific parallels, too — including one connecting the destiny of Blackbeard, the leader whom a part of the populace wants removed when he’s deemed unfit, and that of former president Laurent Gbagbo. That said, Night of the Kings is equally enjoyable without a close handle on Ivorian politics and recent history.

Besides the cinematography, the very specific sense of place and rhythm that Lacote conjures also relies heavily on a beautifully detailed soundscape, which often plays with what’s happening off-screen as much as what’s actually visible. Good stories, as we all know, extend far beyond what’s directly in the tale.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
Production companies: Banshee Films, Wassakara Productions, Peripheria, Yennenga Production
Cast: Kone Bakary, Steve Tientcheu, Rasmane Ouedraogo, Issaka Sawadogo, Digbeu Jean Cyrille, Abdoul Karim Konate, Anzian Marcel, Laetitia Ky, Denis Lavant
Writer-Director: Philippe Lacote
Producers: Delphine Jaquet, Yanick Letourneau, Ernest Konan, Yoro Mbaye
Cinematography: Tobie Marier Robitaille
Production design: Samuel Teisseire
Costume design: Hanna Sjodin
Editing: Aube Foglia
Music: Olivier Alary
Sales: Memento Film Sales

In French, Dyula, Ivorian Slang
No rating, 93 minutes