(director/writer: Philippe Lacôte; cinematographer: Tobie Marier Robitaille; editor: Aube Foglia; music: Olivier Alary; cast: Koné Bakary (Roman), Steve Tientcheu (Blackbeard), Rasmané Ouédraogo (Soni), Issaka Sawadogo (Nivaquine), Digbeu Jean Cyrille (Half-Mad), Abdoul Karim Konaté (Lass), Anzian Marcel (Razor Blade), Laetitia Ky (The Queen), Denis Lavant (Silence); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Delphine Jaquet, Yanick Létourneau, Ernest Konan, Yoro Mbaye; Neon; 2020-France/Canada/Senegal/Ivory Coast-in French, Dioula, Nouchi with English subtitles)

It’s a curious film of brilliant storytelling, one that makes for an unusual prison film.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Ivorian filmmaker Philippe Lacôte (“Run”) directs and writes a visually stunning escapist fantasy film set inside the walls of the infamous prison of “La MACA” in Cote d’Ivoire. It’s one of West Africa’s largest prisons, an immense concrete building that’s overcrowded with 5,000 inmates that was built for 1,500. It’s located on the outskirts of Abidjan (the director’s hometown, where his mom served time in its prison, and as a child he visited her). It’s in the middle of the Ivorian forest (a former national park), and is basically run by the inmates (with the prison staff watching the rowdy inmates from a distance).

A young man just imprisoned is told by the designated prisoner Boss, the elderly Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), to be the new Roman (Koné Bakary). Roman means storyteller in French. It’s traditional to do this storytelling ritual with the rising of the red moon, and the head prisoner is in charge of choosing the storyteller. The Roman’s task is to invent an entertaining story for the other prisoners to hear in French that lasts the entire night. If the story doesn’t work, he will be killed. This set-up takes the form of a modern-day Scheherazade, lifted from the One Thousand and One Nights. Also, the prisoners are encouraged to act out the story and to get up and dance/sing if inspired.

The shy Roman tells a mystical story on the life of the legendary outlaw “Zama King, ” a story he heard from his aunt–a West African griot (prison storyteller), a story that the prisoners are familiar with and like. The Roman stretches it out until dawn by adding subplots.

We learn that if the Boss is unfit he will be replaced, but he must kill himself when removed from office. Blackbeard is dying, and it’s doubtful if he would last the night.

Issaka Sawadogo has a good turn as the prison guard. Denis Lavant is helpful to the storyteller as the kooky and only white prisoner. Laetitia Ky sparkles playing the queen in a fable story added on to the main story.

It’s a curious film of brilliant storytelling, one that makes for an unusual prison film.

Night of the Kings

REVIEWED ON 12/3/2020  GRADE: B+