Set partly in Ivory Coast’s “Mad Max”-like MACA correctional facility and partly in the imagination of its newest inmate, “Night of the Kings” feels radically different from most films set behind bars, and not just because of its one-of-a-kind location. Naturally, the wild plots and power games one typically associates with the genre still feature, but “Night” stands apart — if not necessarily above — as director Philipe Lacôte zeroes in on an unusual tradition within those walls: that of the “Roman.”
A variation on the West African griot (a kind of troubadour storyteller or bard), the Roman is tasked with spinning amusing tales for his fellow prisoners — an honorific role to which “Night” attaches heightened life-and-death stakes: In Lacôte’s version, the Roman will be killed when his story concludes. And so, like some kind of modern-day Scheherazade, this unwitting protagonist (first-timer Koné Bakary) puts everything he can into entertaining the “captive audience,” as he’s thrust into a position where survival depends on his narrative ingenuity.
That’s a compelling place to start a movie whose appeal derives largely from a sense of exoticism and danger. Even now, in 2020, Africa remains the most cinematically underrepresented continent (not counting Antarctica), and Lacôte makes a compelling ambassador for Ivory Coast, blending age-old local customs with contemporary style to deliver a viewing experience that couldn’t have hailed from any other country. With this project, in which magical realism lends everything a mystical dimension, Lacôte confidently delivers on the promise of his 2014 Cannes-selected “Run.”
The director grew up in Abidjan, where the film is set. When Lacôte was a child, his mother served time in “La MACA,” and he would visit her there. Now, many years later, he seizes on the mythic reputation of the place, where notorious murderers are thrown together with petty gangsters and political dissidents. The movie prowls the overcrowded corridors to reveal a rowdy yet self-contained society in which the criminals set their own laws and customs.
The imposing concrete complex was built within a national park, so it’s saying something that the film’s fictional warden (Issaka Sawadogo) refers to the cellblock — not the untamed forest that surrounds it — as “the jungle,” and he yields control to the most dominant of his prisoners, the “Dangôro” (Steve Tientcheu of last year’s “Les Misérables”). It is this boss-like master, dubbed Lord Blackbeard by his lackeys, who hand-picks Bakary’s character for Roman duties. Although that selection amounts to a death sentence for this hapless newcomer, Blackbeard is more concerned with orchestrating his successor from among his loyal subjects, which makes for “Game of Thrones”-level intrigue behind the scenes, as henchmen lurk behind curtains with knives drawn.
According to ritual, the Dangôro must take his own life when he is no longer healthy enough to govern — although, as in any power structure, his rivals seek to hasten the Dangôro’s demise. Realizing that a challenger named Lass (Abdoul Karim Konaté) is plotting to overthrow him, Blackbeard seizes upon this special night, when the moon turns blood red, to create a diversion and retire on his own terms. This leaves Roman with only one ally, lone white inmate Silence (crazy-looking “Holy Motors” star Denis Lavant), to guide him.
In a country where elections are bloodier and more fraught than our own, and where the transition of leadership is seldom peaceful, Blackbeard’s elaborate (and frequently baffling) plans amount to a poetic allegory, commenting on real-world Ivorian history. During the past 20 years alone, this troubled nation has undergone two civil wars, resulting in the overthrow of a corrupt president (Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to accept the results of a popular election) and the outbreak of street violence.
Echoes of this history reverberate within MACA, heightened by the recent assassination of an outlaw hero known as Zama King, head of the Microbes gang, described here as “the handyman for the new leaders of the country.” Though understandably intimidated by what is expected of him, Roman turns out to be a natural storyteller, choosing to regale the crowd with the legendary birth, rise and death of Zama. At one point, Blackbeard demands to know why Roman settled on this subject. “I didn’t choose. It just came to me,” he answers, although the movie makes clear that on the day of his arrest, Roman was an eyewitness to Zama’s death (he arrives at MACA in the same shirt he’s wearing during this segment of his tale).
When Roman speaks to the crowd, his words conjure lively cut scenes, transporting the listeners back in time to a village where a tribal queen with magic powers (played by Ivorian hair artist Laetitia Ky, rocking one of her signature coifs) is caught up in a potential coup . In the film’s most spectacular sequence, the queen and her challenger do battle in an open field, where they stand on giant pillars surrounded by hundreds of Dozo hunters, conjuring elephants, snakes and fire. It’s a showdown worthy of the dueling wizards in “The Lord of the Rings,” or something out of an “Avatar: The Last Airbender” cartoon.
Like Polish puzzle box “The Saragossa Manuscript,” Lacôte’s film features stories within stories and can be downright confusing to follow , but is never less than mesmerizing. Certainly, Roman’s audience seems captivated: The more acrobatic among them pitch in via pantomime, song and dance. This too reflects the Ivorian storytelling tradition, which doesn’t rely on a lone orator, but involves dynamic group performance and the wonderful chanting that forms the film’s soundtrack.
Technically, only the exteriors were shot at MACA, whereas Lacôte seamlessly staged the inmate scenes in colonial-era buildings convincingly distressed by production designer Samuel Teisseire. Navigating the grungy halls in glorious widescreen, DP Tobie Marier Robitaille imbues these spaces with restless energy, lighting his characters so they glow bronze in group settings or cool blue in the shadows. Roman’s stories tend to take place by day, offering both prisoners and audiences a figurative escape from the claustrophobic environment. Yearning to survive long enough to see the sun rise again, Roman gradually finds his voice, as the director now has as well: That could be Lacôte dazedly stumbling into the yard in the final scene, a full-fledged storyteller.