At times, it seems as if writer-director Philippe Lacôte is unable to determine what sort of movie he wanted to make with "Night of the Kings."
This indecision might be the movie's greatest virtue.
Lacôte packs a lot of material in his movie's brief 93-minute running time, and the film effortlessly changes shape and tone as it progresses. Although the movie is set in Lacôte's native Ivory Coast, it reminds me of Kansas weather. If you don't like it, wait a minute.
Buried deep in the forest lies the enormous prison Maison d'Arrêt et de Correction d'Abidjan (La Maca). An understandably nervous young man (Bakary Koné) dreads what awaits him inside the walls. La Maca has guards, but the real boss of the place is an inmate named Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu). He dubs the new arrival "Roman" and informs him he must now tell stories to the rest of the prisoners.
Like Scheherazade from "The Arabian Nights," Roman has no say in the matter. If he can't keep the rest of the building entertained with his tale, he might not live to see the morning.
Blackbeard's whims might be law, but he's now barely able to breathe without an oxygen tank. Thanks to a shortage of guards, Half-Mad (Jean Cyrille Digbeau) and Lass (Abdoul Karim Konaté) are eagerly vying to replace Blackbeard, and riots are almost impossible to control. There's also a sense of dread from a creepy red moon outside of La Maca.
Roman has little idea what kind of tale will keep the rest of the inmates from killing him, so he makes up things based on his life in the streets and from things he spots in the prison. "Night of the Kings" leaps outside the walls to become part fantasy and part documentary. The other prisoners are willing to listen to Roman groping for ideas because he says he's a protégé of gangster Zama King.
King's gang, the Microbes, actually existed, but Roman's story veers from the actual recent history of Ivory Coast with its civil wars to a sort of mythic past where people in traditional clothes carry contemporary firearms. In these scenes, it's almost as if the French had never occupied Roman's homeland.
Oh, and a queen (Laetitia Ky) fights her brother by casting spells that would seem at home in "Game of Thrones." Hey, he's a kid, but "Night of the Kings" still works because the line between fact and fantasy is blurred from the start. Inside the walls of La Maca, it's easy to lose sense of time. Prisoners must to climb on top of one another to determine what time of day it is or even the weather. No wonder they dance and act out Roman's tales instead of mocking them.
Lacôte manages to keep all of this material afloat and infuses "Night of the Kings" with a constant sense of danger. People inside the walls of La Maca could die at any second, but the red moon outside doesn't bode well, either. He also easily blends first-time performers like Koné with accomplished veterans like French actor Denis Lavant ("Holy Motors"), whose character Silence rarely speaks but offers warnings that should be heeded.
Last year, when "Parasite" director Bong Joon Ho said viewers would discover fascinating movies if they were willing to read subtitles, this is the sort of film he was talking about.
‘Night of the Kings’
87 Cast: Bakary Koné, Steve Tientcheu, Jean Cyrille Digbeu, Rasmané Ouédraogo, Issaka Sawadogo, Abdoul Karim Konaté, Macel Anzian, Laetitia Ky, Denis Lavant
Director: Philippe Lacôte
Rating: R, for some violent material, language and nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Available for rental through various streaming services