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Review: ‘Night of the Kings,’ a movie about the power of storytelling, also has a good story to tell

Koné Bakary in the movie "Night of the Kings."
(Neon)

It took Scheherazade 1,001 nights to weave her web and ultimately save her skin. No comparable level of stamina is demanded of the plucky young fantasist in “Night of the Kings,” though that doesn’t make his task any more enviable. Not long after being thrown into Ivory Coast’s notorious La Maca penitentiary, he is given the name “Roman,” or storyteller, and made to regale his fellow prisoners with tales of wonder over one fateful evening. It’s a ritual intended to maintain order yet destined to end in bloodshed, though who will live and who will die remains, much like the ending of Roman’s own improvised yarn, an intriguingly open question.

The Ivorian director Philippe Lacôte, who wrote the script with Delphine Jaquet, ushers us into this massive concrete fortress alongside Roman (Koné Bakary), a convicted pickpocket and La Maca’s newest arrival. The naive young outsider-protagonist is a familiar cinematic device, but this heady and inventive movie, recently shortlisted for the international feature Oscar, adheres to convention only up to a point.

To paraphrase one of the many characters trapped within its walls, La Maca isn’t like most prisons. Surrounded by lush greenery on the outskirts of Abidjan, the capital city, it is both a vision of the abyss and a self-enclosed society, ruled by a chosen inmate known as the Dangoro, and sustained by ceremonial laws rooted in Ivorian history and folklore. But those laws appear to be on the verge of crumbling in this movie, a portrait of mass confinement that is also an allegory of the old clashing with the new.

The longtime Dangoro, Blackbeard (an imposing Steve Tientcheu, “Les Misérables”), is grievously ill and bound by tradition to take his own life. Various gangs are scheming to succeed him, through violence if necessary. Lacôte outlines these power struggles with quick, slashing brushstrokes: We learn to navigate this secluded underworld not just through the script’s terse dollops of exposition but also through the athletic movements of Tobie Marier-Robitaille’s camera, snaking through grotty rooms and hallways packed with prisoners. Blackbeard may be losing command of this unruly mass of humanity, but Roman’s arrival does allow him to keep the inevitable at bay: He invokes the “Night of Roman,” when all the prisoners will gather in a courtyard under a blood-red moon and hear our hero speak. (Lacôte has noted that this conceit is an imaginative riff on a real-life La Maca phenomenon.)

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Koné Bakary in "Night of the Kings."
(Neon)

“Night of the Kings” is thus explicitly a story about the power of storytelling — a not-unfamiliar conceit that might make your heart sink a little at first, given how many filmmakers have used self-reflexivity as an excuse for self-congratulation. But any such pretensions are kept in check here, as is the ponderousness and sentimentality that often afflict such exercises in mythmaking.

The story that Roman comes up with doesn’t seem too remarkable, at least initially: Hesitantly at first, but with increasingly bold language, he tells of the tumultuous life and brutal death of a young gang leader named Zama King.

The telling, though, is remarkable. Lacôte brings us into Zama King’s story — and out of La Maca’s claustrophobic environs — through brief illustrative sequences, the loveliest of which show an ancient warrior-queen (Laetitia Ky) leading a procession along the coast and, eventually, an army into battle. (For visual splendor, the wobbly but sparingly used computer-generated imagery comes in second to the traditional costumes designed by Hanna Sjödin.) But as transporting as these embellishments are, we are held even more powerfully by the sheer force of Roman’s narration, by the glow of the torchlight on the faces of his captive audience and by their vigorous responses to each new twist and turn. Sometimes they push back vocally against his narrative; more often they accompany it, through song, dance and pantomime, their bodies giving flesh and form to the storyteller’s words.

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It’s a remarkable spectacle, and also a bracing argument that the best spectacles are handmade. Although Roman has a family connection to the West African griot tradition, his own storytelling talents are rough and unpolished, and all the more affectingly human for it. He’s improvising like mad, trying to last the night and escape the violence that is never far distant: It rears its head in Roman’s tales of armed combat and mob murder, and it also lurks in the shadows of La Maca, where all manner of harrowing prison intrigue churns beneath the multilayered main narrative. (Some levity is provided by the great Denis Lavant as the prison’s sole white inmate, Silence, who skulks about doling out cryptic advice and paying no heed to the chicken perched on his shoulder.)

Laetitia Ky in "Night of the Kings."
(Neon)

Lacôte’s 2014 debut feature, “Run,” seemed to herald a cinematic rejuvenation for Ivory Coast, whose once-thriving film industry foundered amid the political upheavals of the early 2000s. (At one point we see documentary footage of the crisis that engulfed the country in the wake of its contested 2010 election.) Like “Run,” though with more focus and control, “Night of the Kings” tells the story of a young man caught up in the sweep of history, and does so with a powerfully disarming mixture of moods. Politics and mythology blur indistinguishably, and folkloric enchantment gives way to startling violence (and vice versa). Lacôte turns the prison into a teeming, quarreling microcosm of the country just beyond its barred walls, and turns his characters into stripped-down representatives of a traumatized, factionalized society struggling to reemerge.

All this can seem like both too much and too little, which speaks to Lacôte’s curious mix of economy and ambition. To say that not everything coheres in this swift, propulsive 93-minute film is to suggest that the filmmaker has done justice to the unruliness of his subject: In capturing and preserving a long-standing oral tradition, he has arrived at both a persuasive vision of the past and a hopeful glimpse of the future. Like all good storytellers, he leaves you wanting more.

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‘Night of the Kings’

In French and Dyula with English subtitles

Rated: R, for some violent material, language and nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: Starts Feb. 26 at virtual cinemas including Laemmle Virtual Cinema; available March 5, PVOD


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