January 16, 2021 – This is one of only two 2020 foreign language films I have seen so far, due to the pandemic messing with my usual supply of movies, but it is a good one. The movie's spoken languages are French and Dyula.
This French, Canadian, Côte d'Ivoire and Senegalese production is set in a prison on the Ivory Coast (Côte d'Ivoire) where a young, new prisoner gets into a whole lot of trouble on his first day in the MACA prison in Abidjan.
This prison is run by the prisoners themselves. There are prison guards and administrators, but they mostly keep to themselves in rooms sealed off from the rest of the prison. They watch the prisoners through tiny openings in the walls of their compound, and are increasingly troubled by what they are seeing on this day.
The man who runs this prison, an inmate known as Blackbeard (played by Steve Tientcheu) is very ill and is losing his grip on power in the prison. He has his men bring in the new prisoner, a pickpocket (played by Bakary Koné). He asks the young man what is going on in the world outside the prison. Blackbeard doesn't even ask him his name, but he does ask him to tell him a story.
Satisfied that the young man is a storyteller, Blackbeard names him Roman, the official prison storyteller, who must tell a story to the prisoners on the night of the “red moon.” Little does Roman know that when he finishes his story, he is to be killed as part of a prison tradition.
Blackbeard himself is doomed to commit suicide as part of another prison tradition for leaders like himself who are no longer strong enough to rule. In choosing Roman as the new storyteller, he buys himself a bit more time and dooms Roman out of evil spite.
When the red moon appears, Roman is forced to tell a story. For his story, he chooses the tale of Zama, a renowned criminal who is greatly revered in prison. Another inmate warns Roman that he is in great danger, but if he manages to hold the attention of the other prisoners with his story for an entire night, he may be able to cheat death.
Roman opens his story by confessing his crimes and telling the prisoners that he grew up with his aunt Salimata, a traditional griot (a West African historian, storyteller, poet or singer). He knows how to tell a good story.
His story includes stories of legendary African royalty and magic. Roman said Zama was raised by a blind man who became an advisor to the queen. When the queen is defeated in a magic battle, Zama and the blind man flee to a city where Zama live in a poverty stricken area.
Zama rises to power among the thieves of the city, forming a criminal organization called the Microbes. He wears a magic necklace given to him by the blind man, which he believes will protect him from harm.
Roman's story is interrupted several times by events in the prison, including a meal break and an assassination of one of Blackbeard's guards. The power structure of the prison is changing even as Roman speaks.
More violent events take place as Roman desperately tries to keep his story going until dawn. Prisoners act out parts of the story in pantomime dances. The scene switches back and forth between different areas of the prison, including the guard compound. The cinematography is haunting and luminous as it switches between scenes in the prison and scenes from Roman's stories.
The acting is excellent by the whole cast, especially in the fear and desperation of Roman, the hatred and resignation of Blackbeard and the crazy energy of the rest of the inmates. This is a prison drama unlike any other. It rates a B.
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