Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 24, 2020 8:32 pm 
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Night of the red moon

Night of Kings/La Nuit des rois is a celebration set in Côte d'Ivoire and primarily in French, of improvisation, storytelling, and dramatic staging that also touches on the politics of control and the precariousness of life. Sometimes the narrative line may seem too much interrupted, but this is itself brilliant storytelling that impresses with its verve and flair and announces the arrival of a bold new talent from Africa. The setting is MACA, an overcrowded, disorderly prison in Abjijan, Cote d'Ivoire, in the middle of a jungle-park. "La MACA is the only prison in the world run by an inmate," someone declares. He is called Barbe Noire (Black Beard: Steve Teintchieu), and he is sick, and his authority is faltering. One called Demi Fou (Half Crazy: Digbeu Jean Cyrille) is a pretender for the throne. But he must contend with Lass (Abdoul Kariyi Konajé). The opening scene follows a new inmate as he arrives, riding rather grandly alone, in a yellow shirt, in the back of an open truck (Koné Bakary: but don't look him up: you'll find only Bakary Koné, a Cote d'Ivoirean footballer). He looks young and a little delicate, feminine (with a necklace), and yet also proud and strong. (The prison contains a truly effeminate young man, a cross dresser who's moved around, but never does anything). The prison throbs with energy. Guards or managers seem to stay in a room by themselves observing from a distance.

As soon as Barbe Noire sees the new arrival he impulsively decides to name him "Roman," a designated storyteller. This will distract the attention of the prisoners and prolong Barbe Noir's authority a little. What the new Roman doesn't know is that the Scheherazade-like tradition calls for him to tell stories for one night, a night of the red moon, and then he will be killed. Later Roman sees the iron hook at the top of the stairs and meets a strange old white man with a big bird on his shoulder (legendary French actor of Beau Travail and Holy Motors Denis Lavant) who tells him what his fate will be. Barbe Noire does not last the night, but Roman does.

There are only a few named characters, but this is very much an ensemble piece with a hundred extras who provide a surging energy. When Roman begins his storytelling, clad now in a handsome long blue silk shirt and standing on a box, there emerges a small company of self-appointed singers, mimes, and dancers around him who will act out, underline, and in the oral tradition, delay key moments of his tale.

How will Roman even survive a minute? He seems timid at first arrival, almost speechless. But when he speaks, scoffers are soon silenced. He announces he is a pickpocket, scoundrel, shyster - and common thief (cheers). He tells that he had an aunt who was a griot (oral bard), and he launches into a criminal epic close to his own experience - the life of Zama King - they know who he is - his own childhood friend, now a legendary crime boss, just arrested, head of the notorious "Microbes" gang who rode in on an insurrection.

Roman weaves in legendary elements such as a king and queen (artist/hair sculptress Laetitia Ky) arriving long ago and a blind father for Zama, Soni (Rasmané Quédraogo). Bakary Koné holds his own as a dramatic speaker, but there's the chorus at hand, and scenes illustrating his tale, notably the king and queen arriving along the seashore, almost TV-footage of civil unrest, and Zama marching through a crowd with Roman on the periphery. Meanwhile time out for a quick feast, and for Barbe Noire to collapse and give up - making Roman's story just the framework for Lacote's effort to tell three stories, that of Roman, i.e. Zama King; of Barbe Noire; and the story of his own effort to weave things together into a very theatrical whole. As storytelling, no one of the three is totally convincing. But as cinema, this is a rich and tasty dish, deftly and economically weaving together many essential elements of an African life and culture shown to be still flourishing amid poverty, confinement, civil unrest and political upheaval. Roman nods to City of God, and a review for the Torongo Globe and Mail calls it "City of God crossed with A Prophet by way of One Thousand and One Nights." Indeed the final shot may link Koné Bakary's Roman with Tahar Rahim's Malik El Djebena in Jacque Audiard's prison epic. High ambitions; great models.

Night of the Kings/La Nuit des rois, debuted at Venice Sept. 2020, also included at Toronto and the New York Film Festival virtual edition, as part of which it was reviewed Thurs., Sept. 24, 2020 for this review. Coming to Chicago and Reykjavik in October. Metascore 82% (so, many mainstream reviews).

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