We can’t live without stories. Stories are what ultimately drive humanity; lost memories drifting through the subconscious, as we constantly seek for meaning in the most uncertain of places. Without stories, we don’t have culture. We also don’t have art. The stories we tell are what keeps morale afloat, where at the darkest hour, a storyteller can find light in the dimmest and damp of places. Without stories, my job, my writing, would cease to exist. Without them, we’re all but lost. In Philippe Lacôte’s sophomore feature Night of the Kings, it’s clear that he understands the importance of storytelling and the universality of survival. Set in the infamous MACA prison located on the Ivory Coast, Lacôte cleverly creates a multi-faceted film of two completely different tales; one about the prisoners and the other about the legend of Zama King — told through the lens of a recently incarcerated jail-mate.
Who is Zama King? An anarchist, a criminal, the son of a noble patriot? Our narrator isn’t even all that sure. As the night continues to fawn, as the red moon begins to shine, the lawless backdrop of the prison becomes more than just a jail. It becomes an entrapment of psychological warfare, where the criminals trapped within the barred walls retaliate in the only way they can; through the art of storytelling. Without stories, they are enraged. Lacôte makes it clear that without the continuation of tradition and storytelling, there is no future for a stable society.
For a film that makes its subject so evidently clear, there seems to be a surprising lack of disconnect within the narrative’s central routes. Maybe it’s the fact that it takes place over the span of twelve hours or so, or maybe it’s because it lacks any sort of moral urgency. As much as I liked the detailed setup and engrossing world-building, the majority of the inmates entrapped in the prison lack any sort of soul. They’re all hollow civilians, obeying the masters of storytelling as their only escape. Though once the tables turn, and the power roles are inverted, the film steadily becomes exhausting and unfocused. It’s as if the strongest elements of Night of the Kings is its immaculate premise, where the simplistic concept comes into full effect.
There’s no denying that Lacôte is a talented director. The polished nuances in the setting and the aforementioned astonishing world building ultimately add a sense of a distinct voice. Lacôte owns and takes pride in his own plot, just like any good storyteller. The issue more relies upon the messy finale, where just like the tale of Zama King, the film slowly disorients itself into an endless convoluted spiral. Night of the Kings may have lost some steam in its more unfortunate final moments, though the naturalistic setting and its subtext on the Ivory Coast’s history of corruption and political retaliation makes the film a more enriching experience. A film deeply rooted in the under-represented cultural backdrop of the Ivory Coast, Night of the Kings is a timely and pleasantly relevant film.
Dir: Philippe Lacôte
Scr: Philippe Lacôte
Cast: Koné Bakary, Steve Tientcheu, Rasmané Ouédraogo, Issaka Sawadogo, Denis Lavant
Country: Ivory Coast, Canada, France, Senegal
Run time: 93 minutes
Night of the Kings screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Neon will release the film in the US in the coming months. The film is also currently seeking UK distribution.