Night of the Kings (dir. Philippe Lacôte): Philadelphia Film Festival review

La Maca is a prison run by the inmates. Inside its walls, a unique, vacuum-sealed culture has emerged, and tonight they will be undergoing a massive change. Cultural rules dictate that the leader of the prison, currently a sickly man called Blackbeard, must take his own life if he were ever to become too ill to rule.

Since Blackbeard is in a state of declining health, other potential leaders, including the forgotten employees of the prison, are gearing up to fill the absence. But Blackbeard is not so interested in ending his life just yet. Tonight is the night of the red moon, which means that Blackbeard can elect a storyteller, called the “Roman”, to tell stories to the inmates in a sort of ceremonial improv game. His enemies see this as a delay tactic, but once the Roman has been selected, there’s no stopping the momentum of the event.

The audience surrogate comes in the form of the Roman, who, being a new prisoner, has little by way of friendship or societal knowledge inside the walls of La Maca. He does understand, however, that he may not survive the night. It’ll be up to him to tell a story that’s long enough to last until morning.

These rules aren’t explicitly stated, but introduced in more of a “learn as you go” sort of method. It’s a fascinating information distribution model, and it’s one that, even as an outsider to all of the cultural goings-on, makes sense and remains compelling for the entirety of the film. Beautifully shot and lit to absolute perfection, much of the film is just Roman telling the story intercut with flashbacks, while fellow prisoners spontaneously break out into interpretive dance act-outs. The energy remains high, and honestly, I wish I could have transported myself to the world of the film (albeit with less danger), just to witness this incredible group storytelling action in person. Truly fascinating stuff.

A mid-film cutaway to a very poorly rendered CG animal battle took me completely out of things for a minute or two, but to its credit, I was able to fall right back into the story when it passed. I can understand why it’s included, but the pace of the film is so electric that it’s a noticeable deceleration. Whatever. The movie rocks. I’ve never seen anything like it.

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