“Night of the Kings,” an import from Ivory Coast, blends elements you’d think could never go together into a swirling, striking whole. It’s a prison thriller with touches of magical realism, a “Lord of the Flies” parable with the soul of a medieval fable, an “Arabian Nights” revamp with gang warfare. Opening at the Kendall Square and available on demand March 5, the film’s a tribute to the power of imagination and storytelling, and it’s like nothing you’ve seen before.
The film opens with a frightened young pickpocket (Bakary Koné) arriving at the gates of MACA, a forbidding (and real) penal fortress deep in the jungle. There’s a warden (Issaka Sawadraogo) and guards, but no one has any illusions that they’re in charge. Instead, the hulking Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) runs the joint, or has for years until ill health has laid him low: He totes an oxygen tank everywhere and younger inmates like Lass (Abdoul Karim Konaté) are circling for the kill. To stall for time, Blackbeard invokes an ancient prison tradition of the storyteller, called the Roman, to unite the convicts in an evening of tale-spinning. The new arrival is dubbed the latest Roman, and his eyes widen in terror at the prospect of keeping hundreds of homicidal men hanging on his words.
The writer-director is Philippe Lacôte, an Ivorian filmmaker whose previous film, “Run” (2014), was the country’s Oscar submission that year, as “Night of the Kings” is in 2021. Lacôte is a master at staging hectic crowd scenes in which chaos suddenly arranges itself into patterns, connections, and poetry. As the new griot begins his narration, standing on a raised block in the prison courtyard and hemmed in by catcalling convicts, men emerge from the throng to act out his story in stylized dance and pantomime. The effect is like a vision out of Hieronymus Bosch parting to reveal a tribal campfire extravaganza.
At first the Roman keeps his story in the present, focused on a notorious gang leader named Zama King (Goneti Oscar) who has recently been killed by an angry mob. (Naturally, Zama King is a hero to the convicts.) As the night lengthens and the boy realizes his life hangs on his yarn-spinning, the narrative moves back to a mythical past and a war between a regal young queen (Laetitia Ky) and her wizard brother. Lacôte stages these sequences on an ocean beach, and they feel primeval, like a legend newly discovered.
“Night of the Kings” increasingly toggles between the then and now, the myth and reality, and both eventually fall into entropy — the queen and her brother going head-to-head in a battle of spells and the seething tensions in the prison devolving into open warfare. Three figures stand out from the fray: The exhausted but still ruthless Blackbeard; a lone white prisoner named Silence, played by the changeling French actor Denis Lavant (“Holy Motors”) and carrying a chicken on his shoulder like a cracked soothsayer; and the Roman, the pickpocket, a boy among men growing into the endless midnight tale he’s weaving as he goes.
Night of the Kings
Written and directed by Philippe Lacôte. Starring Bakary Koné, Steve Tientcheu, Denis Lavant. At Kendall Square, available on demand March 5. In French and Dyula, with subtitles. 93 minutes. R (some violent material, language, nudity).