The Congolese action thriller Viva Riva! takes its inspiration from the pulpy American crime flicks of the '30s and '40s, augmented with a dash of modern sex and violence, and infused with the unique spirit of its setting of Kinshasa. Our main character, Riva (Patsha Bay Mukuna), like so many film noir and neo-noir heroes before him, is a fella who just wants to live well. And if that means going after Nora (Manie Malone), the moll of one Kinshasa's biggest gangsters, then Riva is not one to shy away.
The film opens with Riva returning to the Congo after spending ten years in Angola. But he did not return empty-handed. He brought a truck loaded with stolen gasoline, which is awful handy since there is a catastrophic gas shortage in Kinshasa. At the going black market wholesale price of six dollars (or more!) per liter, Riva looks like a millionaire in the making.
So maybe it's the money that gives Riva the confidence to go after Nora, but more likely it's his nature. Rather than try to steal Nora in secret, Riva does it all out in the open of a dance club, where Nora's man Azor (Diplome Amekindra) can watch and fume. It might also be this lack of discretion that leads to the arrival in Kinshasa of three very unhappy Angolan gentlemen, led by the vicious César (Hoji Fortuna), looking for Riva and a certain truck full of gasoline. The Angolans blackmail a female Army commandant (Marlene Longange) into helping them navigate the local underworld, and she recruits her lesbian prostitute lover Malou (Angelique Mbumb) to collect information.
Even though Viva Riva features a lot of characters, it's actually a very simple story -- and that's a good thing. While certain tropes familiar from hundreds of American crime movies make their appearances, the movie doesn't get tangled in unnecessarily convoluted plotting. Writer-director Djo Tunda Wa Munga sets up his characters and conflicts, and then just sets it all in motion. The conclusion is not a big whammy of a surprise, but the road to that ending is pleasantly free of formulaic contrivance. Munga's feature debut is assured and stylish, without ever going over the top and without losing sight of his characters. He successfully tells a story that could take place anywhere in the world, but in a fashion that could only take place in Kinshasa. Munga is a director to keep an eye on.
The Video & Audio:
For a standard-def presentation, the 1.85:1 anamorphic image of Viva Riva looks quite good. A little noisy and a little soft in patches, but nothing that is too distracting. The colors are enjoyably vibrant, and you can make out everything in the copious night scenes. The Dolby 5.1 French & Lingala audio track (with optional English subtitles) sounds really nice. Like the movie, it's not show-offy, but it creates the perfect atmosphere that serves the story well.
- Interview with director Djo Tunda Wa Munga (7:45) - Munga addresses his inspiration from old film noirs and discusses the historical and social context of the making of the film. He mentions that the only non-propaganda film that was made in the Congo before the current era was 1987's La Vie Est Belle, which I actually saw on VHS years ago. The difference between Viva Riva's gritty street-level storytelling and La Vie Est Belle's flat, fairy-tale vision of Kinshasa would surely make for a good film studies thesis paper by some student out there.
- Papy (53:09) - A long short film, or a feature-ette, by Munga, from 2008. Inspired by a real person (who appears briefly at the end), Papy tells the story of a police officer diagnosed with AIDS who tries to hide it from the people he knows. While it's interesting to see Munga's range, it doesn't have quite the same appeal as the feature. Nonetheless, it's a very cool inclusion on the disc.
- Theatrical Trailer
Looking at the street date of Viva Riva, I noticed this was originally released on DVD about two and a half years ago and, in fact, DVDTalk published a review of this very same edition back then. Why exactly Music Box Films sent us another screener 2 years later is puzzling, but I'm glad they did. As a longtime fan of action and crime movies, this was definitely an excellent discovery for me. If you haven't had a chance in the past two years to get into this flick, there's no time like the present. Highly Recommended.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and lifelong movie buff. You can check out the folk-rock music documentary he directed, Making Lovers & Dollars.