Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Night of the Kings, the Ivory Coast’s submission for the Oscars this year, streams from SIFF right here.
I am not entirely sure what Night of the Kings is, but it is—and I’m not being glib here—certainly something. This film from the Ivory Coast takes us to a brutal prison called La MACA (surrounded by the lushness of jungle) where a new inmate arrives on an auspicious night: the “Night of the Red Moon,” where it’s literally glowing scarlet out there. The person who controls the prison is not the beleaguered warden, but an inmate who holds the position of the “dangoro,” a once-fearsome giant named Blackbeard.
Blackbeard is being challenged by younger pretenders to the throne, and they have reason to believe the time for change is nigh; as we meet him, Blackbeard is lugging around an oxygen tank, his strength ebbing, his body lurched to one side as though halfway given up. By custom, he must absent himself from his regal status when his physical power has gone, and he will do that this night. But not before declaring that the newcomer is a “Roman”—not in the sense of ancient Rome, but in the sense of the French word for fiction. The Roman is installed to spend a night telling a story, and—a West African Scheherazade—he will be killed when he finishes the tale.
Yes, so, this is sort of what the film is about—and yet it is not what the film is. Nothing in Night of the Kings conforms to any conventional mode of storytelling, just as the Roman’s panicky methods of stretching his tale have a tendency to go back and forth in time. (We see parts of his story acted out, tales of a contemporary criminal in Abidjan; the snippets are laced with magical realism.) As the Roman does his best to summon his powers as a griot, and hold off his potential murderers, the other inmates “perform” the story, moving their bodies in wordless dance, or singing impromptu songs that relate to the drama at hand. It’s opera, it’s melodrama, and it’s slathered in burnished light, despite the dreary setting of the MACA; cinematographer Tobie Marier-Robitaille makes the dingy prison look like the corridors of a decaying European royal court. Oh, and over there in the corner is Denis Lavant (of Beau Travail and Holy Motors renown), walking around as the only white jailbird, a live chicken perched on his shoulder throughout.
Lavant’s role is small, but his presence is indicative of writer-director Philippe Lacôte’s talent for casting. The film is full of extraordinary people, including the wide-eyed newcomer (Bakary Koné, his first film role), a nervy pretender (Abdoul Karim Konaté), the princess of the story-within-the-story (artist Laetitia Ky), a blind man of great significance (Rasmane Ouedraogo, a memorable figure from Ousmane Sembene’s Moolade), and especially the once-mighty Blackbeard, in a performance by Steve Tientcheu that’s all the more powerful for the way Tientcheu summons up the dissipated brawn of the man, dragging his oxygen tent with him like a punishment for past transgressions. There isn’t a dull face in the film.
The Roman’s story transfixes the inmates, though likely less so to the movie audience; I assume it has some resonance for Ivorians and West Africans that might not translate. But there is a spell being cast, and it has something to do with the way the movie doesn’t explain its meanings, or its curious blend of gritty there-ness with mythological undertones. Not everything works, I think, but the dizzying atmosphere that emerges is haunting.
February 26, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.