Never underestimate the power of a spellbinding story. It just might save your life.
Ask Scheherazade, whose enchanting Arabian Nights tales lasted a thousand and one nights.
Or ask Roman, whose life — like Scheherazade’s — depends on keeping the king captivated by the stories he spins.
That’s the premise of Night of the Kings, an unusual but effective mix of visual fantasy and stark prison drama from writer-director Philippe LaCote.
The movie played film festivals from Venice to Toronto on its way to becoming Ivory Coast’s official submission for a best foreign-language Academy Award.
That language is French, indicating the West African nation’s former colonial past.
But the action begins very much in the present, as a handcuffed young man (Kone Bakary) is transported to the infamous La MACA Prison, a forbidding concrete netherworld surrounded by lush vegetation.
He’s been arrested for his connection to an infamous gang in the country’s largest city, Abidjan.
At La MACA, however, the prison’s warden doesn’t really call the shots. True power rests with the dangoro, a prisoner the other inmates call “chief.” But the current dangoro, Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), tethered to an oxygen tank, knows his days are numbered.
He can tell by the wannabe dangoros (Digbeu Jean Cyrille, Abdoul Karim Konate) jockeying to replace him.
And by the approach of the red moon, which signals the appointment of a new storyteller. Dubbed Roman (which translates to “novel,” if you remember your high-school French), he must spend the night spinning tales for the prisoners — including their chief — if he wants to see the sunrise.
Inevitably, Roman is the newcomer — who recalls the example of his aunt, a West African storyteller called a griot, to conjure the legendary exploits of Abidjan gang leader Raza King.
Night of the Kings interweaves multiple thematic threads, touching on everything from local folk tales (some brought to life via shaky visual effects) to contemporary politics.
At the heart of the movie, however, there’s a more timeless narrative, one defined by the desperate drive for survival — and the equally human yearning to believe in the possibility of a happy ending.
LaCote and cinematographer Tobie Marier-Robitaille skillfully contrast the harsh light of bleak reality with the dramatic red-moon dreamscape.
And if Night of the Kings is hardly as spellbinding — or as life-changing — as Roman’s stories turn out to be, it’s a tale worth telling nonetheless.