As the new arrival at a violent prison, the young man at the center of “Night of the Kings” faces a tough crowd. He’s assigned the ceremonial duty of telling stories all night, while the convicts’ ailing capo, Blackbeard, fends off succession plots. Philippe Lacôte’s restless film — a rare United States release from Ivory Coast — braids together its struggles for survival to suggest an entire country fighting to emerge.
Lacôte crosses the open-ended energy of griot traditions with the surging tensions of the prison’s close quarters. Given the honorary title “Roman,” the storyteller (fresh-faced Koné Bakary) stands up in a crowded main room to spin forth the origin story of Zama King, a gangster who roamed Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s largest city, during the country’s post-electoral chaos in the 2010s. Lacôte splices in clips of former President Laurent Gbagbo, who resisted his election loss.
A chorus of inmates heckles and embellishes the burgeoning tale with pantomimes and song, while Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu, the mayor in “Les Misérables”) broods over his decline. Zama’s back story eventually jumps tracks to show a C.G.I.-enhanced battle between a queen (the artist Laetitia Ky) and her brother. Denis Lavant even pops up as a character named Silence, with a bird on his shoulder.
“It doesn’t even make sense!” one prisoner protests, and the movie keeps edging from compressed into sketchy, with Zama King oddly remaining a blank. But having also sat through two and a half hours of “Wonder Woman 1984,” I found myself daydreaming that the superhero’s time could be magically yielded to Lacôte to flesh out his evocative mythmaking.
Night of the Kings
Not rated. In French, Dyula and Nouchi, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. Watch through Angelika Film Center’s virtual cinema.