Plot: A young man is sentenced to the MACA prison in Abidjan, and must tell the other prisoners stories to survive.
One of the most interesting films at TIFF this year, Philippe Lacôte’s NIGHT OF THE KINGS mixes elements of myth, fantasy and realism to deliver a truly unique, yet somewhat inaccessible, African films of the year. The film takes several gambles and will require an attentive, invested audience to truly appreciate its themes.
The film opens with a young pickpocket (Bakary Koné) who is being sent to the MACA prison in Abidjan. More than a place for confinement, MACA, as one of its guards describes it. Is the only prison in the world ruled by its inmates. Unlike other similar prisons, MACA has its own rules – ones in which the mythical supersedes any and all expected guidelines known to exist in such places.
When the pickpocket arrives at MACA, he soon plunges into its peculiar and often bizarre labyrinth of myth-driven practices, particularly that of the ‘Night of the Roman’, a prisoner chosen to spend the night telling prisoners stories in order to survive. Reminiscent of the popular Middle Eastern ‘1001 Nights’ folk tale, in which Scherazade has to cunningly survive by extending her stories to offer herself the chance to live longer. By raising the curiosity of her prosecutor, she wins time and outsmarts her opponent. The same can be said for the pickpocket, who is dubbed as ‘Roman’, the chosen one who would spend his first night in prison telling stories which, if not compelling enough, would mean his instant death.
In conjunction with the Night of the Roman, a new era is about to emerge at MACA, as the gang leader of the prison is about to step down due to his illness. But traditions at MACA require more than a simple succession of power, as removed leaders are required to die, opening doors for their successors to lead the inmates.
In drawing parallels between cote d’Ivoire’s own history and MACA as a miniature version of a country that witnesses much turmoil and waves of violence, Lacôte successfully delivers a film in which the lines between fiction and reality become increasingly blurred as the film goes by.
Towards the end of the Roman’s story, it becomes clear that his invented, stretched story is perhaps less made up as he had made it seem, as his fictional character, Zama King, shares a lot in common with his own upbringing. Despite not overtly leading audiences to such a conclusion, Lacôte lets us toy with the idea that Roman’s stories are a result of mere exaggeration rather than complete imagination. Whether or not the film’s mythical elements are grounded in local folk tales or are a dramatized version of the protagonist’s own experiences, NIGHT OF THE KINGS celebrates the power of storytelling as a form of escape, and more importantly, solace.
Verdict: Rich with folk tales that may be hard to follow for some, NIGHT OF THE KINGS is completely original and immersive. Even if its mythical elements are somewhat overplayed at the expense of characterization, the film retains its uniqueness and will certainly be rewarding for curious, patient audiences hoping to explore worlds unknown and cultures in which stories can save lives.
This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival. Night of the Kings is the official submission by Ivory Coast for the International Feature Film Oscar for 2021 and is set for US distribution from Neon.