REVIEW: Night of the Kings (TIFF 2020)
Flying overhead, all there is to see is green: the canopy of dense forest glowing from the unrelenting heat of the sun. We finally stumble upon an interruption, a block amongst the brush — pale, concrete, and sharply, contrastingly geometric – this is MACA prison. The inmates at MACA are there because the authority of the larger government sent them, but within the concrete walls, they are the ones who hold the power. The guards and officials are under the fist of the prisoners, who have reconfigured society to their own means: a hierarchy built from captivity.
Night of the Kings follows the story of a single night within MACA, where the prison’s dying leader, Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) holds a ceremony under the Red Moon to postpone his transition of rule. Newly imprisoned, Roman (Bakary Koné), must act as the storyteller for the night, and if his tale doesn’t last long enough to see the sun rise, he’s not likely to survive it. The film then begins to ebb and flow between two concurrent stories: the happenings of the night and the orated world of Roman’s creation.
The structure of MACA’s alternate society is what makes Night of the Kings most compelling. There is initiation, recreation, oppression, and brutalization — a world separate but parallel to every society we can name. The characters are essentially born anew once they enter the walls, being given entirely new names like Roman, Blackbeard, and Sexy, their former identities are erased and unreported. However the striking moments of portraiture within the cinematography disallow anything to be lost among the anonymity. We see these men closer than they even see each other, affording us a nearly inherent empathy, but they’re still left in a shroud of mystery — an energizing juxtaposition that pushes the film forward. Yet, even among the bedlam, the narrative wrings out any notion that MACA exists solely in hostility, instead exhibiting a sense of unspoken community and understanding.
As each character exists anonymously as a single part of a whole, there is also a sense of stable community. As Roman weaves his own narrative, evolving from biography to legend, the men who listen speechlessly organize themselves into performance. They act out the tale like silent play, each of them comprising their own roles simultaneously — almost telepathically. The psychology that writer-director Phillipe Lacôte is able to elicit is captivating. Our permitted glimpses into even the most stone-faced members of MACA’s social hierarchy reminds us that there’s always humanity pulsating behind the darkest facades.
Complementary to this, is the cinematography by Tobie Marier-Robitaille. Bold in it’s own understated nature, the film’s visuals have a faded creaminess to their appearance that’s enchanting even in the most eerie circumstances. Contradictory to this softness, the overall vibe within MACA is jagged and chest-tightening in its uncertainty, as every moment feels on the precipice of explosion. There’s a menacing mystery to the motivations and intentions of the characters despite the environment forcing everything out in the open. What’s most arresting is that their similarities — their trauma, their imprisonment, their plight — are both what connects their harmonious synchronicity and drives their mortal conflicts.
The score consists of a low, humming chime, while the other musical accompaniment is the booming bellows of the prisoners as they break into song to accessorize Roman’s story. It’s these grand displays of community theatre that solidify a companionship despite the violence and gripping tension that run beneath it all. Koné’s performance is firmly planted in reality, rendering Roman within our heart’s reach. He is incredibly touching through performance, but also notably within the narrative’s placement of him: a newly introduced outsider to MACA, ignorant of its dynamics as he tries to safely find a home within his forced insertion into their society.
Night of the Kings is a film defined by its brilliant implementation of dichotomy: tension within the tame, malice behind the unassuming, ambiguity straddling clarity, and powerlessness among the powerful. It executes this narrative on the back of a story-within-a-story, as Roman’s oration is a device to illustrate the intricacies of MACA’s culture. It’s gripping investigation on the force of storytelling and the social dynamics that construct under the beast of isolation, forms a meta exploration of one of that most deeply human behaviors: aligning ourselves with narratives that help us cope and establishing community in the roots of trauma.