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 CÚsar (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.
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