A Night For The Ages

A review of the Ivorian masterpiece, Night of the Kings
Entertainment
March 24, 2024
Written By
Ifeoluwa Olutayo
In this Article

I’ve always been one to romanticize watching films on the big screen; after all, films are my life and theatrical viewings are what God and the director intended. It’s a profession, passion and hobby all in one. It may or may not be viewed as a problem because of my lack of social interaction, but to my friend Ebube, Ifeoluwa’s “touching of grass” is of the utmost importance.

Fair enough.

I understand it.

To drive home his concern, let me paint a picture.

I spend the entirety of my waking days watching films on my laptop, wrapped gently in the dark of my living space, so I do see my critical lack of sunlight, but it’s not for lack of trying, my comrades.

I’ve been trying to go out more, I swear and by the gods, it should be easier.

I live in Lagos.

The commercial capital offers a variety of activities to indulge in, so why not ignore all of them in favour of film screenings?

Healthy.

On this particular evening out in Lagos, I was privileged to see a doubleheader of films at the Alliance française in Ikoyi. One of the films, Night of the Kings, was one that I had seen three years before, an undergraduate without any films under his belt, and the experience was magical. It’s one of those moments that forges a desire, a fire if you will, in the belly of an electrical engineer in training, and forge it did.

So best believe that when I heard it was getting a big screen treatment in Nigeria, I was going to turn up. Never mind that I was planning to watch an Ivorian film around the same time our national team was taking a stand in the AFCON final against the Ivorian football team.

Why was it worth this excursion? Why did I show a lack of interest in what was billed as a possibly superb moment in our history?

One word. A visual ode to Storytelling. (Five words actually.)

You see, Philippe Lacôte’s masterpiece is a masterclass in storytelling that is also centred around the protagonist telling a bunch of tales. A story within a story, never for one minute hard to follow.

A small-time criminal is thrown into the world’s only prison run by inmates and must tell stories to all the prisoners throughout his first night, a night billed as the Night of Roman.

The only problem is this; the end of Night doesn’t offer much mortal promise (think the Arabian Nights).

I have a soft spot for films that are set within a small timeframe, because the realities of dangerous situations translate into those few hours or days, opening up a vast world of suspense and thrill rarely experienced to such degrees.

The film handles societal hierarchies and politics of management with a deft hand, the promise of thrill and feasts to try to stall inevitable changes in power.

The topic of storytelling is broached as a way to excite and also a way to preserve cultures and events, even if the stories are fantastical. It touches on revolution, self-preservation, the fallibility of perceived protection from the consequences of evil acts, of immortalization through tales.

The protagonist is only referred to as “Roman”, the storyteller, and this lends a certain perception to his person as one only filled with stories, fear and trembling aside. It could also be a way to show that he is only one of the numbers, and even though we see most of this beautiful film through his lens, his stories matter more than his person, lost in the ever-growing ingoing of the incarcerated.

The film never feels buoyed down by the two running threads in the narrative. They stand alone, running parallel and true; the Roman’s stories at the fore and the struggle for power going on in the background.

The cinematography is gorgeous; the night is a canvas painted with the brilliant brushes of Tobie Marier-Robitaille and it elevates the fantasy leanings of our storytelling Roman.

The performances in this film are nothing short of spectacular, and in the three years since I first saw it, this particular repeat viewing has only deepened my appreciation for what African Cinema can offer those who pay rapt attention.

Bakary Koné as Roman is squirrelly, adapting to what perils the night throws at him, uncertain and determined all at once. The Dangoro, brought to life by the immensely talented Steve Tientcheu is brooding, trying to cling to the power that he’s poised to relinquish with his ever-growing sickness. Jean Cyrille Digbeu brings the character of Half-Mad, a loyalist to the ailing Dangoro to life with the edge and ferocity of one who schemes to succeed his master. I could go on and on about Lass (played by Abdoul-Karim Konate), the antagonist and self-appointed successor to the Dangoro, a man imbued with all the capitalist ideas and a band of loyalists who seek to implement them once the Dangoro dies.

The night comes alive with mime, dance, dirges and uplifting melodies, poetry flows in the dialogue and payoffs are apparent, all the components of a modern-day folktale.

Philippe Lacôte is a master at work here, and this film will always be a reference point for filmmakers, critics and enthusiasts when they study the cinema of West Africa.

Unparalleled brilliance brought this to life, and when the morning comes, I’ll stand awash in the beauty of the rays and the shine afforded me in the Night of the Kings.

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