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VENICE 2020 Orizzonti

Review: Night of the Kings

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- VENICE 2020: Power struggles and succession disputes are reflected in the ruthless universe of a prison filled with African mystique in the fascinating second feature film from Philippe Lacôte

Review: Night of the Kings
Bakary Koné in Night of the Kings

“From now on, you are Roman, the prince without a kingdom. You will have to tell us stories.” An injunction that sounds a lot like an ultimatum for the young newcomer, circled by the intimidating agitation of the detainees of the overcrowded MACA prison in Abidjan. He is also shown a suspended iron hook, in case he wasn’t planning to take his role seriously – a ritual set against the backdrop of power struggles in an ultra-violent and codified universe, which Philippe Lacôte seized with great creativity in Night of the Kings [+see also:
trailer
interview: Philippe Lacôte
film profile
]
, presented in the Orizzonti section at the 77th Venice Film Festival.

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The filmmaker (revealed in Cannes in 2014 with Run [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
) doesn’t limit himself to the classic dramatic tension of the prison film genre. By opening up doors to other worlds from within his story, he has managed to inject it with the pulsation of the Africa of griots, blending together irrational beliefs and the realism of survival and crime which characterise the neighbourhoods of the outskirts and are related to the civil war that took place in Ivory Coast in 2010-2011.

Barbe Noire (Steve Tientcheu), Nivaquine, Demi Fou, Sexy, Lame de Rasoir, Silence, etc. The nicknames of the occupants of the MACA give a rather representative image of the atmosphere reigning in this place where guards are hiding in their offices, letting prisoners completely free to roam and to kill each other (“the MACA belongs to them. They have to spill blood.”). The atmosphere is particularly electric because the boss, Barbe Noire, is dying, and his place is coveted by a rival gang. To buy himself some time, reunite his troops and conform to traditions, he therefore invokes the red moon and the ritual of Roman, a “tell me a story, once upon a time” ritual that makes the convicts abuzz, on the verge of a general conflagration, while the contenders to the throne plot backstage. At the heart of this chaos, the young Roman (Bakary Koné), who is playing his life in one night, starts to tell (and invent) a story about the life of Zama King, an urban legend, the boss of the Microbes gang in a lawless district…

Interlacing several layers of story within a single film is a rather risky enterprise, but Philippe Lacôte manages to give a remarquable homogeneity to a vivid ensemble that draws upon the entire African imaginary and fervour. From a war led by a witch queen (with helpful special effects) advised by a blind man who may be the adoptive father of Zama King, via the criminal ascension of the young man in the wake of the FRCI (the pro-Outtara Republican Forces involved in the Ivorian conflict of 2011), the story that Roman desperately develops in the night while a succession battle unfolds in real time in the prison throws a powerful symbolic light on a multi-faceted world where reality and myth are indivisible. The director succeeds at transcribing all the energy of this mix in a gripping and seductive film that sharply veers off the beaten track.

Produced by the French company Banshee Films, Night of the Kings is co-produced by Wassakara Productions (Ivory Coast), Peripheria (Canada) and Yennenga Production (Senegal). International sales are handled by Memento Films International.

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(Translated from French by Manuela Lazic)

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