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Night of the Kings is in UK cinemas and streaming on BFI Player and other digital platforms.

A young man arrives at a prison fortress nestled in the middle of a jungle canopy. His eyes grow wide and his bottom lip trembles. He, like us, is preparing for a journey of dehumanisation and degradation. What follows instead is something quite unexpected, a radically beautiful yet brutal look at the power of stories.

La MACA (‘Maison d’Arrêt et de Correction d’Abidjan’), a notorious prison in Ivory Coast, has been all but abandoned by the authorities. The jaded guards bring new prisoners in and stop them escaping, but beyond that all power has been ceded to the prisoner hierarchies. Right at the top is the Dangoro who, according to the rules, must commit suicide to let another ascend if his health fails. The current Dangoro is Blackbeard, a towering baritone who is on his last legs, relying on makeshift handles to get out of bed and drawing deep on his oxygen tank every few minutes.

He assigns the young man the title of Roman, ‘story-teller’, tasking him with telling the prisoners a story when the red moon is in the sky, in hopes that this distraction will buy him a little more time before he has to end his reign and his life. His potential successors Half Mad (Digbeu Jean Cyrille) and Lass (Abdoul Karim Konaté) circle like vultures, with Lass hissing his intent to turn the Dangoro’s “slaves into customers”.

La MACA operates as a cruel but whimsical society filled with music, dance and murder. The paper-thin walls between magic and reality are eroded further as Night of the Kings progresses. Apart from Blackbeard and Roman, many of the characters are one-dimensional, with limited dialogue and single, unwavering motivations, but this only adds to the mythic feel of the film, with complicated men trapped amongst archetypes, and the desire to destroy your father-figure in order to replace him resonating with timeless purity. The rules themselves have an almost religious significance within the prison; for all their seemingly arbitrary cruelty, the prisoners’ commitment to them is unwavering. As Roman begs Blackbeard for leniency, he stares at him unblinking and replies: “It’s not a game, it’s a tradition.”

Night of the Kings (2020)

Newcomer Koné Bakary brings a sensitive intensity, both through the power of Roman’s storytelling and his conflicted descent into La MACA’s collective madness. The director Philippe Lacôte lights Roman’s face with eerie radiance as he tells the story of his friend Zama King, making the moments where he simply narrates just as enthralling as the scenes of assassination and magical battle that his words conjure. Some of the prisoners take on roles within Roman’s story; an old blind prisoner (Issaka Sawadogo) transforms into Zama’s magical father, advising a young queen. This empowering transformation is amongst the film’s most beautifully realised threads, with Sawadogo embodying the crushing effect of imprisonment on a man who, outside this cage, could have done anything.

There is raw beauty in both the warm candlelit prison courtyard under a blood-red moon and long-past battles taking place among the sapphire blues of an African coastal paradise. The costume design is particularly gorgeous in the latter scenes, with the Queen (Laetitia Ky) dressed in long flowing robes, her hair fashioned into an opulent crown.

Lacôte’s use of the prisoners as a Greek chorus is mesmerising; at times they chant, sing and move as one organism. Men break off to perform Roman’s words in a combination of African dance and commedia dell’arte. Their ritualised combats take on a similarly surreal light: hyper-masculine posturing expressed through pirouettes and fluttering long limbs. As the gangs attack one another, they flock like starlings against the sky, surging forwards and taking blows as a single fluid entity.

Night of the Kings holds to a simple truth: that men need stories to interpret the world and make its cruelties bearable. The Ivorian cinematic tradition has been derailed in the recent past, following a coup d’état in 1999 and a series of civil wars until 2011. Lacôte’s film speaks to the country’s need to create stories, to make extraordinary films like this, that make sense of all they have endured.

Sight and Sound, Summer 2022

Sight and Sound celebrates its 90th anniversary in style. Plus: the Cannes bulletin, Pedro Almodóvar, Ukrainian cinema, The Innocents and Edgar Wright interviewing Daniels.

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