Review by Sean Boelman
One of the most magical things about cinema is that it can offer audiences from around the world a unique glimpse into parts of other cultures that they would otherwise never get the chance to see. A fascinating love letter to the African storytelling tradition, Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings may be messy, but it is also extremely charming.
The film follows a young boy who, newly arriving at a prison in the Ivory Coast, is selected by the convicts’ leader to be his successor, beginning a ritual in which he must tell a story to maintain the order among their ranks. It’s an intriguing concept rooted in ritual, and while it may be a bit too impressionistic to appeal to general audiences, it’s undeniably poetic.
The narrative structure of the movie is definitely intricate. The film weaves between the story of the prisoners and the story that the protagonist is telling, and while the latter is more entertaining, the former is the part of the movie that is much more alluring. Still, Lacôte finds a solid, if not perfectly even, balance between these two moving parts.
There is some commentary on the prison system and how a stratification naturally forms amongst the inmates, but this theme is often eschewed in favor of Lacôtes cultural musings, and these work better. Storytelling is an art in and of itself, and this culture obviously has a deep respect for it, which Lacôte hopes to impart on the audience.
If the film does have a significant shortcoming, it is its character development. The unorthodox structure of the movie is ultimately the cause of many of its issues in this regard, but it will leave viewers feeling disconnected from the characters. Still, by the end of his story, it is impossible not to at least admire the protagonist.
Koné Bakary’s lead performance is excellent. He does a great job of delivering his story in a way that is captivating, even when he is simply talking. He’s an exciting young talent who shows the obvious potential to be a breakout. Steve Tientcheu also gives a powerful turn in his pivotal supporting role.
The film is at its best visually when it is depicting the more ritualistic elements of storytelling. The cinematography by Tobie Marier-Robitaille will make the viewer feel as if they are a part of the crowd hearing this story being orated. For something that initially wouldn’t seem very cinematic, it’s surprisingly immersive.
Night of the Kings is a very ambitious movie, and most of its efforts pay off in droves. Not everyone is going to connect with its unusual pacing and content, but it’s also hard not to respect the level of passion on display.
Night of the Kings screened as a part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival which ran September 10-19.