A slow-moving shot of a thick forest opens Night of the Kings, slowly panning up and revealing a massive penitentiary in the midst of the trees. Shouting voices fade in to join the gentle ones of the birds and cicadas, and the prison looks grey and imposing. The camera cuts to a distressed boy sitting in the back of a police truck, looking back and forth between the forest and the dingy prison wall on either side of him. It’s in these very first reels that we’re given a taste of Night of the Kings’ unique sensory atmosphere. The film intrigues our senses through its vivid depictions of the domain we’re pushed into, right from the beginning up until the end of the film. Rich colors, precise use of lighting, and ambient use of sound play important roles as the film establishes its environment in a way that felt more thoroughly brilliant the longer I watched.
Night of the Kings is a 2021 film written and directed by Philippe Lacôte. It begins with an introduction of La Maca, a prison ruled by its inmates with their own laws and customs. We follow a young new prisoner (Bakary Koné), who arrives at La Maca to turmoil inside. The Dangôro, leader of the inmates and sole authority within the microcosm, is old and sick, and tradition dictates that when the Dangôro is no longer able to lead, he must take his own life. The current Dangôro, Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), is being challenged and pressured from all sides to step down. In a pitch to bring peace to the prison on the night that he must die, he designates the newest inmate as the prison’s storyteller called the Roman. On the night of the red moon, the Roman must tell a story to last the hours of the night and keep his audience enraptured. If he doesn’t, he pays a price—in his own blood. It’s through the story he tells and the night’s events in the prison, coupled with expertly used sensory depictions, that we’re shown the complex world of the prison and the world outside it. It’s a place of vibrant color, expressive art, and a fascination with the fantastical and spiritual. As the bright day turns into a vivid and spiritual night, we can see the importance of storytelling to the inmates and the film’s attitude towards the art it depicts.