Ivory Coast’s third submission to the Academy Awards’ Best International Feature Film category is like a fairy tale. But for a film that highlights an actual fairy tale story as the cream of its plot, Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings (La Nuit des rois) works best when you focus on the ritual of storytelling rather than the story told.
In the film, a young man enters prison. Then not only was he forced by the inmates to adopt the name of “Roman,” he was also forced to tell them stories for a full night until the red moon sets. If his story ends prematurely before dawn, he will be killed. This is the ritual of “Night of the Roman” inside the MACA prison. The ritual, and the whole prison, are supervised by its de facto tyrant named Blackbeard.
So Roman tells them the story of Zama, an anecdote based on his friend mixed with his own personal flair of folklore and mythology. Here is where the film flounders a bit. The stories behind MACA, its culture, its residents, and its “king” would be more enchanting than the fantastic exploits of the Zama king which fell flat and dull. Because of the conceived need to delve more into the latter, a considerable amount of screentime and budget is compromised leading to the former’s pace being ruptured.
How did Blackbeard ever get a stronghold over the prison? What’s at stake with his struggle for power against the prison’s guards and rivaling inmate factions? How did Night of the Roman ever come to be? What’s the story of these individuals more interesting than the manufactured Zama King? All were only touched upon by a little bit. To be honest, however, Zama’s tale isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just undercooked. If only Night of the Kings focused on any one side of the fictional and the actual over both (not to say it should erase any), the film would have had a tighter structure and more well-rounded narrative. But neither achieved their full potential.
As said, the film’s core is the celebration of storytelling overall. And here is where it really excelled. Roman telling his tale as the inmates combust into song and dance has touches of magic realism alone that are more fantastic than that of the Zama King with its special effects showcase. As a spectacle, it can make up for the film’s unrealized plots if you revel in it. And if you’re an outsider, at least it offers a taste of Ivorian culture.
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