It took Scheherazade 1,001 nights to weave her net and in the end save her pores and skin. No comparable level of stamina is demanded of the plucky younger fantasist in “Night of the Kings,” although that doesn’t make his process any more enviable. Not lengthy after being thrown into Ivory Coast’s infamous La Maca penitentiary, he’s given the name “Roman,” or storyteller, and made to regale his fellow prisoners with tales of marvel over one fateful night. It’s a ritual meant to keep up order but destined to end in bloodshed, although who will live and who will die stays, very similar to the ending of Roman’s personal improvised yarn, an intriguingly open question.
The Ivorian director Philippe Lacôte, who wrote the script with Delphine Jaquet, ushers us into this large concrete fortress alongside Roman (Koné Bakary), a convicted pickpocket and La Maca’s latest arrival. The naive younger outsider-protagonist is a well-known cinematic device, however this heady and ingenious movie, not too long ago shortlisted for the best international feature Oscar, adheres to conference only as much as a point.
To paraphrase one of many many characters trapped inside its partitions, La Maca isn’t like most prisons. Surrounded by lush greenery on the outskirts of Abidjan, the capital city, it’s each a imaginative and prescient of the abyss and a self-enclosed society, dominated by a selected inmate often known as the Dangoro, and sustained by ceremonial laws rooted in Ivorian history and folklore. However these laws seem like on the verge of crumbling on this movie, a portrait of mass confinement that can be an allegory of the old clashing with the new.
The longtime Dangoro, Blackbeard (an imposing Steve Tientcheu, “Les Misérables”), is grievously ailing and certain by custom to take his personal life. Numerous gangs are scheming to succeed him, via violence if vital. Lacôte outlines these power struggles with fast, slashing brushstrokes: We study to navigate this secluded underworld not simply via the script’s terse dollops of exposition but additionally via the athletic actions of Tobie Marier-Robitaille’s digicam, snaking via grotty rooms and hallways filled with prisoners. Blackbeard may be dropping command of this unruly mass of humanity, however Roman’s arrival does enable him to keep the inevitable at bay: He invokes the “Night of Roman,” when all of the prisoners will collect in a courtyard under a blood-red moon and listen to our hero converse. (Lacôte has noted that this conceit is an imaginative riff on a real-life La Maca phenomenon.)
“Night of the Kings” is thus explicitly a narrative in regards to the power of storytelling — a not-unfamiliar conceit which may make your coronary heart sink somewhat at first, given how many filmmakers have used self-reflexivity as an excuse for self-congratulation. However any such pretensions are stored in check right here, as is the ponderousness and sentimentality that always afflict such workouts in mythmaking.
The story that Roman comes up with doesn’t appear too outstanding, at the least initially: Hesitantly at first, however with more and more daring language, he tells of the tumultuous life and brutal death of a younger gang leader named Zama King.
The telling, although, is outstanding. Lacôte brings us into Zama King’s story — and out of La Maca’s claustrophobic environs — via temporary illustrative sequences, the loveliest of which present an historical warrior-queen (Laetitia Ky) main a procession alongside the coast and, ultimately, an army into battle. (For visible splendor, the wobbly however sparingly used computer-generated imagery is available in second to the normal costumes designed by Hanna Sjödin.) However as transporting as these elaborations are, we’re 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 every new twist and switch. Typically they push again vocally towards his narrative; more usually they accompany it, via track, dance and pantomime, their our bodies giving flesh and form to the storyteller’s phrases.
It’s a outstanding spectacle, and likewise a bracing argument that the best spectacles are handmade. Though Roman has a family connection to the West African griot custom, his personal storytelling skills are tough and unpolished, and all of the more affectingly human for it. He’s improvising like mad, attempting to final the night and escape the violence that’s by no means far distant: It rears its head in Roman’s tales of armed fight and mob homicide, and it additionally lurks within the shadows of La Maca, where all method of harrowing jail intrigue churns beneath the multilayered main narrative. (Some levity is supplied by the good Denis Lavant because the jail’s sole white inmate, Silence, who skulks about doling out cryptic recommendation and paying no heed to the hen perched on his shoulder.)
Lacôte’s 2014 debut feature, “Run,” appeared to herald a cinematic rejuvenation for Ivory Coast, whose once-thriving movie industry foundered amid the political upheavals of the early 2000s. (At one point we see documentary footage of the disaster that engulfed the country within the wake of its contested 2010 election.) Like “Run,” although with more focus and control, “Night of the Kings” tells the story of a younger man caught up within the sweep of history, and does so with a powerfully disarming combination of moods. Politics and mythology blur indistinguishably, and folkloric enchantment gives way to startling violence (and vice versa). Lacôte turns the jail right into a teeming, quarreling microcosm of the country simply past its barred partitions, and turns his characters into stripped-down representatives of a traumatized, factionalized society struggling to reemerge.
All this could appear to be each an excessive amount of and too little, which speaks to Lacôte’s curious mixture of economy and ambition. To say that not every thing coheres on this swift, propulsive 93-minute movie is to recommend that the filmmaker has done justice to the unruliness of his subject: In capturing and preserving a long-standing oral custom, he has arrived at each a persuasive imaginative and prescient of the previous and a hopeful glimpse of the future. Like all good storytellers, he leaves you wanting more.
‘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: Begins Feb. 26 at virtual cinemas together with Laemmle Virtual Cinema; available March 5, PVOD