“Tell me a story.” These are the first words spoken by Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) an inmate of the MACA correctional facility, to its newest arrival, a petty thief who Blackbeard names the new “Roman”. Blackbeard is the terminally-ill “Dangoro” of the prison, holding onto a kingdom fraught with wannabe usurpers. He prolongs his fated death by enacting the “Night of the Roman,” a storytelling tradition similar to the West African “griot.” However, in the MACA variation, the storyteller, or Roman, is given an ultimatum. Speak until sunrise or be murdered.
The Ivory Coast, a tiny West African country with a population just under 25 million, has a complicated cinema landscape, partially distempered due to government unrest in the early 2000’s. In 2015, however, the country experienced a resurrection after Philippe Lacôte’s debut feature “Run” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and became only Cote d’Ivoire’s second bid at the Academy Awards. Now Lacôte is back with “Night of the Kings,” a violent, virile film that romanticizes the power of storytelling.
Drifting between fantasy and reality, Philippe Lacôte’s sophomore feature has more in common to Shakespeare than Shawshank. When Roman introduces a scorpion into his story, fellow inmates act it out. They jeer and applaud when he recounts the death of a friend. Its wildly entertaining, and the strength of the film lies in its emphasis on storytelling as a medium. The life or death stakes for Roman create solid dramatic tension and the violent off-stage drama of the film has clear parallels to the Bard’s “Twelfth Night.”
However, what the film lacks is the depth of “Twelfth Night.” It suffers from a brisk 90 minute run-time, limiting the arcs of characters like Half-Mad and Sexy and disallowing for any deep exploration into the prison’s traditions. And while it’s evident the power struggle within the prison is symbolic of the political turmoil plaguing the Ivory Coast in the early aughts, the metaphor fails to invoke any real message aside from comparison.
That being said, the film still serves as evidence for Lacôte’s technical brilliance. He works again with cinematographer Tobie Marier-Robitaille, who deftly tracks the different eras of history presented in the film through mood lighting and shot style. His tracking shots of Roman entering the prison’s “theater” are glorious, illuminating the prophet with a single lamp who, along with the hue of the Red Moon, serve as characters themselves.
Philippe Lacôte’s “Night of the Kings” is a bold, unapologetic film blending myth and fiction, past and present, and life and death. And despite some underdeveloped B plots, the film still manages to evoke a powerful message about power and corruption.