'Night Of The Kings' Review: Neon's Latest Acquisition Title Is A Thrilling Ode To Storytelling's Power [TIFF 2020]

Champions of art love to pontificate about its importance, especially during times like a pandemic. But that rhetoric might ring a little hollow right now. However, it's not an exaggeration to say that humans as a species are hardwired for storytelling. There's science to back up the capability to narrativize our experience as necessity, not merely a luxury. As innate as our impulses for violence and destruction is our drive to create and narrate.

This becomes all too apparent for the young man dubbed Roman (Koné Bakary) in Philippe Lacôte's Night of the Kings. Within the film, he must become a Scheherazade of the modern carceral state, spinning an engrossing and open-ended yarn to secure his own survival. Lacôte captures something special about the very nature of oral storytelling with his nested narratives. Roman's imaginative biography envelops and transforms the inmates around him, but the very act of telling the story out loud also changes himself.

Like any movie in the genre, Night of the Kings is as much about institutions as it is individuals and authority as it is autonomy. Though society often designates these enclosures as something separate from them, the way incarcerated individuals both reconfigure and redefine "order" often makes them a fascinating glance at the world around them. Prisoners both reflect and refract the social structures that produce them. Ivorian prison MACA makes for an even purer illustration of this principle given that the inmates run the jail. The guards overseeing the complex exert only nominal power over what transpires within the walls.

What plays out in the shadows of most prison movies comes out into the open in Night of the Kings. The setting allows Lacôte not to waste much time in the film on the correctional officers, instead plunging the audience directly into MACA's well-defined ecosystem as Roman enters it himself. He trusts certain genre conventions are familiar enough to skip unnecessary exposition, and it pays off. Internal codes and laws, including those around ritual suicide, need little handholding to comprehend.

The state of affairs become instantly clear: Roman steps directly into the crossfire between the prison's warring factions jockeying for power. As Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), the prison's chief known as the dangoro, begins to succumb to illness, Roman's attempts to find stability and standing within MACA occur in its state of maximum volatility. Blackbeard, sensing the end of his reign, designates Roman to fulfill a custom of storytelling simply by laying eyes on him at the end of a hallway. Once selected, the center of gravity within Night of the Kings irrevocably shifts. Only one thing can last until dawn: Roman's story or his life.

Roman dives into the story of the fictional "Zama King," a character whose heroic rise and tragic fall intersects with reality and fantasy. This imagined figure both fights with a transfigured elephant and comes into his own following Ivory Coast's 2011 post-electoral crisis. It's not exactly consistent, but then again, what can one expect from a bard concocting his story in real time under intense duress?

Oddly enough, the Zama King segments rank among the film's least effective despite being its most fantastical. The story constitutes a movie within a movie, and Lacôte's curious decision to largely omit Roman's voiceover from the very images he's conjuring makes the flights of fancy feel disconnected from the rest of the film. It's a testament to just how compelling the dynamics Lacôte presents inside MACA. Even the most absurd plotting by Roman cannot top the raw intrigue of the prison itself.

When the Zama King scenes feel too self-contained, they stop Night of the Kings dead in its tracks. But when Lacôte intercuts them with the vibrant scenes forming around Roman's narration, which include prisoners forming spontaneous Greek choruses and interpretative dance sidebars, the film soars. (Lest anyone think inmates are an uncivilized bunch, they gleefully participate in the creative process – and they all know the Brazilian movie City of God.)

Night of the Kings becomes most interesting when Lacôte zooms out to consider the wider impacts of Roman's storytelling. Yes, the tale of the Zama King matters immensely to him insofar as it impacts the duration of his existence. But weaving the narrative works on him in an emotional way as well. The story forces Roman to contemplate destiny – does he possess as much control over his own life as he does over the Zama King's?/Film rating: 7 out of 10