Night of the Kings review – Ivory Coast prison drama escapes into magical realism

he Maca prison, outside Abidjan, is a world with its own codes and rules, we are told, and this imaginative, energetic Ivorian drama follows suit, blending modern-day thriller dynamics and fluid handheld visuals with older storytelling traditions to produce something unique and locally specific. As well as a testament to the power of storytelling to transcend the grimmest of circumstances, it could also be read as a commentary on Ivory Coast’s own war-torn, postcolonial reality.

The prison in question feels more like a slum than a penitentiary. Rather than being locked in cells, the inmates seem to have free run of the place, while armed guards observe nervously from behind barricades. According to Night of the Kings, the true ruler of the Maca is an inmate named Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu, last seen in Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables). But he is dying and others are vying to take his place, which means a violent power struggle is imminent. Into this volatile situation arrives a timid young man (Bakary Koné) WHO, for reasons he cannot fathom, is nominated “Roman”, or storyteller. “When the red moon comes out tomorrow night you must tell us stories,” Blackbeard commands him. Roman realises his own survival, and the prison’s stability, depend on his ability to spin a yarn, Scheherazade-like, through the night till dawn.

What ensues is more like magical-realist theatre than prison drama. The fearful Roman indeed has a tale to tell, of his friendship with a notorious local outlaw who was recently slain. The thronged prisoners are as much participants as audience members. Even as they heckle and threaten Roman, they augment his story with chanting, singing, role-playing and dance moves. The film-making performs a similar function, cutting away from this febrile reality to scenes from Roman’s story, which assumes an increasingly fable-like quality as he improvises more fantastical detail, reaching back into Ivorian history and myth. The freshness of the approach, combined with the substance of the stories, works the same strange magic on the viewer as on the inmates. It is easy to be swept along.

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