Male hierarchies inside prison walls are well-trod ground, from “Brute Force” and “Birdman of Alcatraz,” to “Papillon,” “Midnight Express,” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” But rarely is an entry as visually rapturous as West African filmmaker Philippe Lacôte’s “Night of the Kings,” which takes place inside the bowels of the infamous La MACA prison in Abidjan, a city on the south side of the Ivory Coast. While the film, both written and directed by Lacôte, is grounded in oral traditions that may seem exotic to certain viewers, the movie is really about the universal power of storytelling regardless of tongue — and how it can be used as a way to survive. Though hampered by some shaky third-act visual effects, “Night of the Kings” is through and through an intoxicating and immersive visual experience even as it unfolds almost like a filmed play.
When a young man (Koné Bakary, delivering a solid first-time performance) is introduced into La MACA, he’s thrust into a dangerous and complicated world where the existentially and otherwise beaten-down guards pretty much let the prisoners run the show led by legacy prisoner Blackbeard (Steven Tientcheu, star of 2020 foreign Oscar nominee “Les Misérables”). Blackbeard is on his way out, preparing to die by suicide to allow for a successor, but he’s not going out quietly. In a final power play to manipulate his lackeys and their latest charge, he dubs the young man “Roman” and, on the night of a red moon, the newcomer is forced to recount a story of his choosing or invention until sunrise if he wants to stay alive. (This is, it turns out, a very real practice in La MACA even if they don’t actually kill the inmate once the story’s over.)
The scenes inside the prison maintain a strong sense of realism, even with a lunatic Denis Lavant haunting the edges as La MACA’s sole white inmate. But when Roman takes flight into his story, a sort of fairytale about Zama King, notorious leader of the “microbe” gang that wrought violence upon Abidjan and reviled by the inmates, “Night of the Kings” moves into the realm of fantasy. Zama King’s story spans decades and many harrowing tragedies including the death of his mother before his own eyes, up until the 2011 collapse of Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo. Hanging in the wings of Zama King’s story is the tragic fate of La MACA’s resident crossdresser (played with knowing sadness by Gbazy Yves Landry), who brings a kind of Jean Genet-esque queer eroticism to the proceedings. It fits the tone; the characters are all men, and constantly in various modes of undress.
While La MACA was originally built to contain 1,500 prisoners, it’s reportedly packed with thousands more. (Think the house-party crowds of “mother!” meets the bodily pyrotechnics of “Climax.”) Cinematographer Tobie Marier-Robitaille turns the environment into a kind of lush hothouse, with scintillating shadows of red from the moon casting an eerie glow over the inmates and beads of sweat illuminating off their skin. The lighting design is dictated by oil lamps and flames. Moments of song and dance incorporate mesmerizing choreography that also helps tell Zama King’s story.
When the film jumps back in time to a magical kingdom, led by a stunningly costumed queen (Laetitia Ky), the crude VFX work breaks the spell as humans anthropomorphize and float in the air. “Night of the Kings” works best when it’s tethered to planet Earth, and when the fantasy of Roman’s telling is cultivated by our imaginations.
Still, it makes for an ambitious, time-hopping trip that should keep audiences as entranced as it does the inmates. While there are potential political allegories to be drawn, “Night of the Kings” is primarily a fantasy — the title comes from the French for Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” after all — a paean to storytelling that succeeds on its own terms as a celebration of the very act itself.
“Night of the Kings” made its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival after debuting in Venice Horizons. It has been acquired by Neon for U.S. distribution.