29th Philadelphia Film Festival: ‘Night of the Kings’ Reviewed

by Rachel Bellwoar

Night of the Kings

Written and Directed by Philippe Lacôte

We never learn Roman’s real name. “Roman” is what the inmates at MACA prison call him, but in the same way he (Bakary Koné) never decides to become storyteller, he doesn’t get a say in his name either.

MACA prison isn’t run by the guards. It’s run by one of the prisoners, Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), but Blackbeard is restricted to an oxygen tank and, according to the unofficial rules of the prison, should be committing suicide soon. To buy himself some time, Blackbeard decides to declare a night of storytelling to coincide with the red moon.

Roman is in charge of telling all the stories and ends up telling one about Zama King, but was Roman really a member of Zama’s gang, Microbe, or did he latch onto his story after being accused of playing a part in his death? As Roman becomes more comfortable talking in front of an audience you see him include more blatant fiction in his stories. At one point a Queen (Laetitia Ky) does battle with her younger brother and the visual of seeing them standing on platforms feels like watching two conductors do battle at a drum corps competition.

Roman couldn’t ask for a more rapt audience and Lacôte stages these scenes to be participatory, so you have other prisoners acting out scenes and singing songs. Unfortunately, what he doesn’t realize right away is he’s in a One Thousand and One Nights situation — if he lets his story come to an end, there’s a good chance he’ll end up dead.

Night of the Kings would make a great double feature with Mati Diop’s Atlantics, which played at last year’s festival and is currently streaming on Netflix. Both films value atmosphere and mix real life with fantasy.

The 29th Philadelphia Film Fesitval ran from October 23rd to November 2nd. Click here for the full program.

%d bloggers like this: