Kinshasa, Africa. The city is plagued with a gas crisis. Cars sit in driveways with empty tanks, and city streets are lined with service stations covered with cardboard signs indicating dry pumps. Sensing a chance to get incredibly rich for a minimal amount of work, Riva (Patsha Bay) steals an entire shipment of gasoline and hides it with his associate G.O., who plan to ride the wave of supply and demand and then sell at the last minute, maximizing their profit. While Riva waits to cash in, he meets up with his friend J.M. (Alex Herabo) and hits the town, but between his big-ticket heist and interest in red-haired beauty Nora (Manie Malone), girlfriend of a local mobster named Azor (Diplome Amekindra), it's not long before he's stirred up a potentially deadly amount of trouble.
Gritty violence, neck-snapping twists of fate, and sprawling, epic scope are among the hallmarks of the gangster genre, but Viva Riva! is noticeably, refreshingly different. Writer/director Djo Tunda has created a truly character-driven thriller. While other gangster films often dream up a web of coincidence and connections that come back to haunt the main character, Tunda focuses purely on Riva and the way he digs his own grave, which streamlines the picture without muting the all-important sense of threat or danger. The pacing gives the picture a unique cadence, making it memorable even in the face of American blockbusters with bigger stars, fresher stories, and higher budgets.
As a lead character, Riva projects a startling fearlessness. He makes no real effort to be stealthy with his haul, and even less effort to tiptoe around Azor in his pursuit of Nora, only barely stopping short of rubbing it in Azor's face. To that end, Bay plays the role with a calm detachment mixed with a surprisingly subtle confidence. A more predictable actor might've played Riva with a cocky arrogance, but Bay's version is just basically unconcerned with anything other than his immediate goals, and the finality and decisiveness with which he makes decisions comes off as an understated cool instead of recklessness. To complement his character, Tunda pitches the film at a laid-back pace that Riva himself controls; when no major plot developments are happening to Riva, Riva is busy making things happen to himself.
For the most part, those things involve sex, with or without his dream girl Nora. In fact, Tunda makes his movie surprisingly sexy, fueled by the physical heat in a country where there don't seem to be as many usual forms of electronic entertainment. Whether he's partying with prostitutes or sneaking onto Azor's property, Riva always seems to be on the prowl. Of course, it helps that Malone is a magnetic screen presence, exuding the perfect blend of anger, allure, and honesty. There are elements of film noir at play in Viva Riva!, but the role has more to offer than a standard, manipulative femme fatale.
Things take a turn for the worse when the owners of the stolen gas show up, led by CÚsar (Hoji Fortuna). They force the hand of a local military commander (Marlene Longange) to help them track down Riva and get their stolen product back. Having already riled Azor, Riva finds himself surrounded from all angles by people who are out to get him. The performances by Fortuna, Longange, and Amekindra effectively illustrate how dangerous each of the criminals pursuing Riva really is, emphasizing and accentuating Riva's carefree attitude. Although Riva certainly has his share of tricks up his sleeve, there's always the sense that he's throwing caution to the wind.
The only major problem with Viva Riva! is that, although Riva is an exciting character, he doesn't exactly gain the sympathy of the audience. A few scenes try to flesh out his backstory, especially a sequence near the end where he finds himself at his parents' house, but by then, it's too late for Tunda to try and deepen him. In all the ways that Nora is a character with visible factors pushing and pulling her decisions and attitude, Riva falls a bit short. Since his appeal is built somewhat on mystery, it's a struggle to fill him in, and adding in the fact that his situation is almost entirely a result of his own bravado, it's even harder to side with him. Viva Riva! has a unique voice and style that's worthy of its lead character, but in terms of substance, Tunda comes up short.
Viva Riva! is saddled with big head art that doesn't really give the viewer any idea of what the film is about, coupled with a really vague tagline ("Kinshasa is Calling") that really doesn't convey anything either. The theatrical poster art probably would've been preferable. The film comes in a standard eco-BOX case, with no insert.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, Viva Riva! is problematic. Daylight close-ups look great, but wider shots show a little bit of digital fuzziness, and low-light and dark scenes are noisy and peppered with small artifacts in the darker corners of the screen. Colors are a little mushy, especially in extreme lighting (such as a scene set in a club filled with bright red lights), and the contrast sometimes seems a bit off (blinding white shirts, flat grays instead of inky blacks). On a standard definition setup, the movie probably looks just fine, but on larger or high-definition televisions, the limitations of the image are going to show.
Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is strong but not impressive. Most of the audio in Viva Riva! seems like untouched production audio, resulting in significant "white noise" ambience throughout the film. Music is bright and crisp, dialogue is clean and clear, and there's some good bass, especially in the aforementioned club scene, filled with echoing, distant beats when the characters slip off to a side hallway or back room. THere's also great directionality in a chase scene at the end through an echo-filled brick structure. English subtitles are provided.
A slightly dry but pleasant interview with director Djo Munga (7:46) is included, in which the director mostly contextualizes the environment and culture that led to Viva Riva!. The most interesting revelation is Munda's unconventional approach to training actors. Much more significant is the inclusion of Papy (53:08), or Mon Histoire Papy, a short film by Munga. It's a compelling but somewhat awkward film that seems like it's about the wrong character, who receives sort of a happy ending despite a grave mistake. At the end, it's revealed that the short is based on a true story, which adds to the complication of enjoying the short. Still, as far as DVD extras go, it's a great inclusion for fans of the feature.
Trailers for The Names of Love, Gainsbourg, The Heir Apparent (aka Largo Winch), and Max Manus play before the menu.
Viva Riva! is a unique little movie with more than enough inspiration to recommend, but sometimes, even hoary gangster tropes will pack a harder punch if the characters are strong enough. If you're looking for something a little different in the overcrowded gangster genre, it's worth a look, but it's no classic. The short film included as an extra is also an enticing bonus.
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