NYFF58: “Night of the Kings” is a moving tribute to what keeps us alive

Night of the Kings Koné Bakary in Night of the Kings (New York Film Festival)

Philippe Lacôte directs “Night of the Kings,” a unique film about a young man who’s forced to tell stories to save his own life.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 58th New York Film Festival.)

We are the sum of the stories we tell. Whether they’re our own personal narratives, or elaborate fiction designed to entertain others, those stories are what remain of us after we’re gone. Sometimes, they keep us safe, both in mind and body, as in the folk tale of Scheherazade, and in Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings, a unique and moving story about a prisoner challenged to tell stories to entertain his fellow inmates.

Night of the Kings takes place in Côte d’Ivoire’s MACA prison, a place that seems like both a medieval fortress, and a college dormitory. For all intents and purposes, the guards (who are only seen at the beginning of the film) have given up trying to maintain any sense of control. The prisoners run the place with a sort of organized chaos, led by the ailing Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), who is looking for a successor before he dies. When a young pickpocket (Koné Bakary) arrives at the prison to begin his sentence, Blackbeard immediately designates him “Roman,” the “prince without a kingdom,” and the prison storyteller. On an evening when a red moon looms high in the sky, Roman must tell stories until dawn, treating the prison commons area like a stage, or else he’ll be killed.

Though he gets off to a slow start, Roman remembers that he’s the descendant of a storyteller, and winds a tale of an infamous criminal, Zama King, which some of the other inmates act out with dancing. Roman is such an effective, passionate storytelling, almost as if he’s not acting of his own volition, that the grim reality of the prison occasionally gives way to fantasy sequences of magic and an almost fairy tale-like queen (Laeticia Ky). Meanwhile, other stories unfold around him, like Blackbeard’s impending death and the unrest and power struggle developing around his replacement, and a cross-dressing inmate who is alternately mistreated and treated with a sort of distant respect by the other prisoners.

Similar to Tarsem’s The Fall (albeit at a lower key), Night of the Kings has its characters escape dire circumstances through vivid folklore. Oddly, though, the movie is at its most interesting when it focuses on the unusual structure of the prison, where, rather than try to escape into the lush jungle surrounding it, the inmates have opted to remain, almost as their own country, with their own government. It’s not making the best of a bad situation, exactly, but more like a tacit acknowledgment that creating a world inside the prison is probably safer than being in the world outside. There, you know who your enemies are, and, more importantly, you where they are.

You don’t need the outside world when you can travel on stories, seeing this world and beyond. Finding out how the stories end keeps you alive, and gets you through one day to the next. Storytelling is the ultimate act of freedom, one that no mere jail cell bars can keep from us. Night of the Kings doesn’t use its prison setting for luridness or shock value. It’s proof that a spark of life and belief can light up the most unlikely places.

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