• Sebastian Mann

Night of the Kings (2021) Review

Fantasy and legend become truth in Philippe Lacôte’s dense but enthralling French-language prison drama.

At 93 minutes long, Night of the Kings fits a surprising amount into its trim runtime. It is a film about the very act of storytelling, as a doomed storyteller regales the history of a famous outlaw to a crowd of prisoners held in the infamous MACA prison on the Ivory Coast.

The world of the MACA is entirely its own. The prisoners are in control, with their own hierarchical systems and rituals. The Dangôro, an inmate-turned-king, presides over the cut-throat prison. Once he falls ill, he must commit suicide to allow for his sucessor to ascend to the makeshift throne. The ailing Blackbeard (a fearsome Steve Tientcheu) is refusing to accept his mortality, as he drags an oxygen tank that trails behind him if it were his own coffin.

Trying to appease the prisoners, Blackbeard appoints a new arrival (Bakary Koné) as the prison’s Roman, the storyteller and griot, who must entertain them on the night of the red moon. For something largely grounded in reality, it has a brilliantly fantastical feel to it, inhabiting an intersection between a pulpy spaghetti western and prison drama, between legend and truth.

You quickly become lost in the film’s rich atmosphere and ambiguous, interwoven narratives

The Roman recounts the life of Zama King, a fearless thief he used to know (and whose untimely end has landed the storyteller behind bars), he tracks through the rocky political climate of West Africa, spinning a mercurial tale rooted in magical tribal warfare and street brutality.

As he tells the story (presented primarily in flashbacks), the once aggressive-seeming prisoners begin to enact the scenes with balletic grace, as they lift and throw each other with deceptive elegance. It recalls the fluidity of the soldiers’ training routines in Claire Denis’ similarly refined 1999 masterwork Beau Travail.

At its worst the narrative is a little too packed and perhaps slightly convoluted, but you quickly become lost in the film’s rich atmosphere and ambiguous, interwoven narratives. Plaudits to cinematographer Tobie Marier Robitaille, whose gorgeous night-time photography captures a world where it seems the sun will never rise again.