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Philippe Lacôte Night of the Kings Review

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Night of the Kings | Review

Night of the Kings | Review

The Grift of Gab: Lacote Walks the Line of Escapism vs. Survival in Magical Sophomore Film

Philippe Lacôte Night of the Kings Review“You look like someone who should be condemned,” remarks inmate overlord Blackbeard to the newest unlucky ward of La MACA, the Cote d’Ivoire’s largest prison, the setting of Philippe Lacôte’s sophomore feature Night of the Kings. Looks can be deceiving, however, in this fable of power transitions and natural phenomenon, as obviously nothing is really what it seems to be. Playing out like a grueling bout of interpretive dance, this fresh take on the Scheherazade mythos from One Thousand and One Nights plays like the necessary escapist fantasy lodged within a dire scenario, and damned if the audience isn’t equally lured into Lacôte’s visual charms as effortlessly as his main protagonist can spin them.

A young man (Kone Bakary) finds himself incarcerated in La MACA and immediately upon his arrival, Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) anoints the young man as “Roman,” informing him it will be his job to entertain the entire prison that night. It is the night of the red moon, and a designated storyteller must keep the prisoners preoccupied or all will fall into chaos. The guard staff barricade themselves without any plans of stepping into the prison yard while various power factions of inmates are aware Blackbeard’s health is failing, and he may not survive the night. And so Roman begins to tell a tale about a notorious gang leader from ancient times named Zama King, and quickly his audience falls under his spell.

What’s actually more important than the specter of the red moon is the reality of Blackbeard’s waning power, and a swiftly moving illness means he will need to appoint a replacement before the dawn. These tangential struggles provide the reality checks of Night of the Kings, along with the brief asides regarding the prison guards (led by Issaka Sawadogo, a brief turn from the enigmatic lead in Nicolas Provost’s troubling The Invader, 2011).

Roman, which means ‘storyteller,’ isn’t allowed to ever convey his own real history, though we’re meant to glean snippets of his tale of Zama King are really a regurgitation of his own experiences. As his tale becomes more and more lavish, so do the corresponding special effects of his projections. His fellow inmates begin to act in conjunction with the narrative, like a cohesive impromptu dance, but what we get to see becomes even more magical, culminating in a levitating face-off between a king and queen using their magical powers. Roman also weaves historical events into his tale, which seems to compel his audience even more, such as his incorporation of Ivorian president Lauren Gbagbo, arrested in 2011.

Much like his 2014 debut Run (which featured Isaach de Bankole), a titular character, who, like his name suggests, is on the run, Lacôte focuses on another woebegone protagonist whose narrative is inextricably linked to the Ivory Coast. Newcomer Bakary Kone does a fine job of getting lost in his own storytelling and then spinning his wheels in desperation to make it through the night.

This time around, Lacôte snags the iconic Denis Lavant, here playing a kooky inmate who provides sage advice for Roman. Steve Tientcheu (Les Misérables, 2019) is effective as the dying Blackbeard, and as one of the only dashes of femininity, newcomer Laetitia Ky is striking in her fairy tale moment as a vicious Queen. The magical escapism tends to rob any real sense of grittiness, which lends to its mystique, at least in comparison to other prison dramas focused on actual institutions, such as Hector Babenco’s Carandiru (2003), for instance.

Reviewed virtually on September 24th at the 2020 New York Film Festival. Main Slate – 93 Mins

★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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