La Nuit des Rois
dir: Philippe Lacôte
I had heard this film was good, but even I’m a bit surprised.
I know what the flick sounds like – young chap turns up to prison in the middle of a jungle in the tiny African nation of Cote d’Ivoire, also known as the Ivory Coast, and looks pretty scared.
He should be. It’s like no other prison I’ve ever seen.
I’m going to indulge in what seems like a bit of fat-shaming, but that’s not really what it is. Especially since I look like Jack Black before he found fame and fortune and personal trainers. There are only two overweight chaps in this whole prison: the warden Nivaquine (Issaka Sawadogo) and Barbè Noire (Steve Tientcheu). Both are big men, both are older, but only one is considered the king of MACA prison. Barbè Noire, despite that being a nickname, and French for Blackbeard, as in the pirate, is just as much called his other title, being Dangôro.
This prison has rules. Every prison has rules, but this one’s rules are tinged with the vaguely mystical: if its ailing king grows weak, he is obligated to top himself, so that a new king can take his place. Except when there is a red moon. If a red moon is to appear, the Dangôro can choose a Roman, as in, a storyteller, to tell a story on that night, thus buying himself some more time.
It is very unclear what the rules are around the telling of the story, or what the storyteller is meant to do. If the crowd doesn’t like the story, presumably the storytelling can come to a premature end. If the crowd are entranced by it, the storyteller gets more time to tell more of a story. But if they run out of story before the sun rises, they will end up on a metal hook, up a flight of stairs, and it looks like a painful way to die.
Again, I know what a story set in a prison sounds like, murder everywhere, abuse by prisoners and guards alike, brutality and sadism and hypermasculinity and all that, and while elements of that appear here, they’re not the bread and butter of the story. It’s really about watching the terrified and desperate Roman (Bakary Koné) try to spin a tale, as many tales, as many versions of tales as he can before he loses the crowd and before the night ends.
No one is really on his side, and everything seems stacked against him, and I’m sure most of the prison don’t care whether he lives or dies, but I guess we care. The sole non-Ivory Coast person in the prison, called Silence (legendary brutish looking French actor Denis Lavant) breaks his silence in order to tell the kid that he has to play for time and stretch out what little material he has. Everyone else, including the ailing king, want to see him fail, because sacrificing him gives the king another day.
But these men of MACA, they also crave a story from the outside. They don’t have, apparently, any phones, or televisions, or any access to the outside world. They, or at least some of them, may have plans to replace the king, or murder his lieutenants, or change how the prison runs, but while the Roman is talking, they are entranced.
They are so entranced that they sometimes act out portions of the story as the storyteller is telling them. If he refers to someone as becoming a lethal scorpion of a man, sometimes the chaps act out the physical representation of a scorpion. They are all in very close quarters, so it’s meant to feel very claustrophobic, and for much of the time everything we see stays within the confines of the prison.
But then we get glimpses of the outside world, perhaps we imagine that that’s what the prisoners are imagining. There is no clear story that the Roman is telling from the start, other than initially starting off by telling the details of his own life. No-one gives a fuck about any of that, except that they care that his auntie was a griot, which is like a storyteller, historian, wise person and musician all rolled into one, and that they think maybe he possesses the powers of a griot as well.
As for who the kid is prior to being nominated the Roman for the night, we don’t really know what to believe, but also, what does it matter? He is whoever he says he is. If he says he was a friend of a legendary criminal called Zama King, so famous that even these prisoners know who he is, then he was.
He starts off by telling the presumably real, and somewhat mundane manner in which Zama King met his maker. But when he finds out he has to make 2 minutes of material last 12 hours, he conjures up on the fly, and based on the reactions of the prisoners, embellishments in the stories surrounding this famous crim. Some bits sound like pure fantastical nonsense, like blind fathers and rival kings and queens, and others are purely mundane, and describe stuff more likely to have happened.
The crowd object only when he starts incorporating actual stuff that’s recently happened during the civil war years of the early 2000s. Despite being cut off from the world, these prisoners, which I found hilarious, actively despise news about politics.
They prefer the fantastical to the current, and, honestly, considering how much “news” we get bombarded with, especially the last 4 years of a certain orange tyrant’s reign, along with the last 1 and half of misery related to the fucking virus, who doesn’t crave some stories about something else, anything else than the grim reality of our current circumstances?
And that seems doubly true of these prisoners, whose daily reality seems grim, even if they exist in a strange ecosystem where a balance is forged and maintained through custom and ritual.
It’s a strange film, but at least for me an immensely enjoyable one. The strangest moment was when the storyteller is telling as aspect of Zama’s life, dealing with his gang the Microbes, of which Roman was a member, and he says to the crowd it was just like the gang in City of God.
A guy in the crowd yells something like “I love that movie.”
Yes, I love it too.
The legendary Brazilian film City of God, or Cidade de Deus by Katia Lund and Fernando Meirelles. It’s a film I know pretty well. But what I’m marveling at here is this: the person that said this doesn’t look old enough to have seen City of God. The Roman, who doubtless is in his 20s even if he looks 15, might have seen it, but is he saying Zama’s gang was just like the gang in City of God, or is that all he can think of to embellish the story, by lifting things from City of God?
Or is it just this director, Philippe Lacote, giving a shout out to City of God, saying this might be a slight homage to that legendary flick, or that he hopes people with think favourably of this flick as being a kind of successor to City of God?
Who knows? Shout outs in movies can sometimes be lame and problematic, and while I appreciate this one, it doesn’t add or detract that much from anything. And it risks the comparison, seeing as they’re fundamentally different flicks. This flick is stop-start, discursive, digressive, winding inward and outward, with a complex, almost frustrating rhythm, weaving in cultural elements of storytelling and human yearning for connection to narratives that transport us. There are the remnants of French colonialism through the lens of the Cote d’Ivoire French dialect, there’s the Islamic religious aspects as well as the animist mystical older beliefs, there’s the uniqueness of the local history with its similarities and differences with other West African countries like Senegal and Burkina Faso and Liberia, but it’s its own place, with its own spin on things. And it’s own civil wars and corrupt dictators like Laurent Gbagbo, tasty things like that.
City of God is some of those things, and a lot of complex social commentary and unbelievable storytelling as well, but it also feels like, watching it, like I imagine smoking a bunch of crack and launching yourself down a mountainside in a shopping trolley that’s on fire would feel like.
This is a much more measured, much stranger experience than that, without the transgressive thrill. We want, or at least I hope “We” as in the audience want the storyteller to survive, and I don’t particularly want anyone to die in this story, but this place requires a sacrifice. Men will lose their lives before the dawn, and only time, and desperate storytelling, will decide who that will be.
Night of the Kings is solid, unconventional, inspiring storytelling, and I very much enjoyed it. It also resists the urge to turn too meta, and doesn’t break the fourth wall to let us know that the storyteller is also trying to win our favour, or that his appeals are to us as well. This didn’t need to and doesn’t become a pretentious intellectual experience; it remains very much grounded in its brutal reality. We want Roman to escape his fate, maybe we want Barbe Noire to escape his fate, but we relate as much to the people enraptured by storytelling as we are by the desperate trickster trying to survive for at least one day more.
9 times I doubt I could have spun such bullshit under pressure like a modern day Scherezhade out of 10
“I want to spill blood one last time. And from the minute I saw you, I knew you were a man who should be condemned” – Night of the Kings