La nuit des rois / Night of the Kings (2020, Ivory Coast / Canada / France / Senegal)

Although this is very much set in present day Ivory Coast, it has the form of an Elizabethan drama, augmented by a Greek chorus; a cultural and temporal potpourri. It might not work magnificently, but magnificently, it works.

The film starts with a clean-cut young man, a teenager, most probably, (Koné Bakary), being delivered to the MACA prison in the jungle outside Abidjan. It’s his first time inside. For a largish prison the reception of this one prisoner causes an enormous ruckus, sufficient to distract the men from some nasty sport with the resident transsexual, Sexy (Gbazi Yves Landry), which was about to turn much nastier. And the young man might have faced a similar ordeal, had the prison’s Dangôro or prisoner boss, the one who calls all the shots, not spotted him from his window and anointed him as the new ‘Roman’ – the storyteller.

The Dangôro, Barbe Noire (or Blackbeard, played by Steve Tientcheu), is in a bit of strife, and getting desperate. An upstart rival, Lass (Abdoul Karim Konaté) is threatening to depose him, and his health is ailing badly. He knows he’s on the way out, one way or another. He can’t simply stand down or abdicate; in the strict rules of the MACA, the Dangôro must take his own life when he is no longer fit to govern. Even so, he tries to buy a bit of time before the inevitable; a red moon is about to come out – it is a time for stories to be told and a feast provided, and if the new Roman doesn’t do his job well, the prisoners will be treated to the theatre of him being strung up on a meat hook. It’s clear that Blackbeard has chosen his novice storyteller very deliberately; he knows that spilling a bit of blood might reassert his authority and keep the wolves at bay for a bit longer.

When the red moon is confirmed, Roman is made to wear a blue satin shirt, is led formally into a large room, accompanied by lanterns, and is given a wooden box to stand on in the middle of a large assembly of prisoners. The crowd is not afraid to give feedback. Roman starts falteringly. The hook beckons. He starts to tell the story of Zama King, a real-life crime boss whose Microbes gang terrorised the Abidjan district for several years before he was hacked to death by a large mob. The crowd cheers at the mention of his name.

Roman places himself with Zama at school in the Lawless Quarter, and with him when he meets his end. It doesn’t matter that neither may be true. At a break, a prisoner named Silence (Denis Lavant) who is permanently adorned with a chicken on his shoulder, warns him, “If you want a chance at survival, don’t finish your story.” Roman, in the process of checking out the meat hook, might well have come to that realisation himself. But wait, he keeps telling his listeners on his return, warming to his job, I didn’t tell you about this bit. I misled you about this. His story covers Zama’s blind father and murdered mother, and a Queen in a sorcery battle with her brother, some of which is an unwelcome distraction. From time to time an extraordinary chorus of prisoners illustrates the story with a song in perfect harmony, or a dance, or maybe a pantomimed scorpion; exhilarating distractions.

As Roman keeps spinning his story, other momentous things are playing out. Sensing that Blackbeard’s end is near, supporters and rivals both jostle for position. Blood is spilt. Testosterone levels rise. Nivaquine (Issaka Sawadogo), a greying guard who has been personally touched by Zama’s Microbes, it seems, and who is galled by the Dangôro’s control of the prison, inserts himself into the drama. Everything is on edge and close; one expects thunder and lightning, cymbals, or a biblical curtain rent in two.

Director Philippe Lacôte drew upon his memories of prison from when he was a child visiting his incarcerated political prisoner mother. One hopes it was the layout he recalls, or the creativity, and not the partly-suppressed energy, the tension and the drama that stuck with him; none of which can be good for impressionable boys. But whatever his influences, his creation, his story of a storyteller within a bigger story, is a triumph.

 

 

 

 

Posted on August 24th, 2021 at 8:14 pm. Updated on August 24th, 2021 at 8:14 pm.

#33 in the Top 500

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