In the broadest of terms, Viva Riva! is the African conflict/action film that I’ve been waiting to see for a long time. Perhaps it was necessary to wait for a film set against the backdrop of the Democratic Republic of Congo to be directed by a Congolese native (Djo Tunda Wa Munga ) for there to be an honest look at the people of the country that, well, let’s just come out and say it: that doesn’t focus on a white person. Much as I enjoyed Africa-based films like Blood Diamond and Invictus, with the exception of Hotel Rwanda, it’s hard to come up with too many African films that focus on Africans.
But that’s hardly the main reason for my enjoyment of Viva Riva!, which is one of the more unconventional genre-shakers I’ve seen in a while. The story itself isn’t exactly unique, but the setting is — it focuses on Riva (Patsha Bay Mukuna), a hard-drinking, smooth-talking, womanizing con man who returns to Kinshasa with a large (and stolen) truck hauling gasoline, one of the most precious and valuable of scarcities in the war-ravaged nation. Riva, with the aid of a cousin who’s trying but failing to go straight, is looking for a way to quickly unload his payload, especially since the gangster who he stole it from during his time in Angola, Cesar (Hoji Fortuna) is tracking him down with a bloody vengeance on his agenda.
The hitch is that Riva quickly falls for the luminous Nora (the ridiculously sexy Manie Malone), which sets him at odds with her gangster boyfriend Azor (Diplome Amekindra). Azor is the king rooster in the crime-infested area, a wealthy thug who’s plagued by his own insecurities. What follows is a wildly lurid gangster flick with the requisite molls and goons, gangsters and gunnies, all set to a thumping African/hip hop beat with a savage, post-war sensibility. It’s a classic gangster picture turned on its head and then thrown on its ass, giving it an Africanized overhaul.
The film is filled with a curious mixture of loving homage to the hard boiled as well as a refreshing originality, but it also uses its setting and characters to create a whole new take on the genre. At the same time, it’s a valuable sociological lesson about the brutal life that the DRC’s denizen survive through on a daily basis. It’s not a political picture, but rather an action/adventure/heist picture that uses the country’s natural state of chaos to create a unique vision. The story is familiar and perhaps even derivative at times, but the terrifyingly violent and real backdrop makes it work. Not to mention the fact that the cast is phenomenal virtually across the board. Their work forms a strong core of a story that explodes into some fairly shocking violence and some cringe-inducing brutality. Cesar is a sharp-dressed, soft-spoken monster, filled with menace and capable of anything, destroying anyone who stands in his way, and bribing or subjugating anyone capable of helping him. Riva’s a careless rogue who doesn’t, until he’s truly in the thick of it, truly understand the dangers of his pursuits — or of his pursuers. The story does a fine job of sharing the dramatic load among genders, as Malone’s Nora is both a wicked seductress as well as a desperate seeker of security, knowing what a hostile land it can be for a woman. On the other end of the spectrum is Marlene Longage as a female army Commandante who’s forced into Cesar’s service. She’s a hard-assed soldier who quickly gets unwillingly swept up into his vengeful rampage while trying frantically to protect her own interests.
The film uses traditional archetypes to form the basic molds for the characters, and then director Munga re-forms the clay to make them into honest creations that reflect the starkness of the city of Kinshasa. At the same time, it’s an oddly loving dedication to the director’s homeland and city, stunningly reflected in its cinematography. It carefully balances the tragic poverty with glimpses of both the wealthy and the middle-class, showing the characters entertain themselves with both impromptu ramshackle dance parties and bass-booming, brilliantly lit nightclubs with flowing (if extravagantly priced) champagne. The natural countryside is lush and beautiful, and it truly does give a whole picture of the life and times of its characters.
It’s imperfect, however. It’s way too long — not in length, but in story, if that makes sense. It feels like it grinds to a halt at some points, and a couple of subplots are either unnecessary or felt tacked on, and there were a couple of hastily cut together subplot resolutions that came completely out of left field (especially a particularly unpleasant and unfulfilling one regarding Riva’s cousin). Similarly, it suffers from a series of increasingly excessive climaxes, as if they had written several endings and then just said, “screw it, let’s use ‘em all.” I found myself getting frustrated when one of the “endings” was particularly satisfying, only to have someone survive and continue the story far beyond what was necessary. By the end it creates an uneven impatience with the viewer. However, to its credit, its final finale doesn’t resort to mawkish sentimentality, but instead strips bare each character and exposes the wreckage created in the wake of their actions. It’s as if Munga was determined to give each and every character their fully deserved ending, even if some of them didn’t warrant it.
That doesn’t make the film a wasted endeavor, because for all of its leaden weight at the end, the sum of its parts is thoroughly impressive. Viva Riva! takes a tried and true genre and infuses it with a new sense of soul and purpose, like Pulp Fiction was dropped into post-colonial Africa. It gives both a fresh take on the gangster picture, as well as a powerful glimpse into a part of the world that’s oft-neglected by both Hollywood and society at large. That it does so without feeling the need to lighten the leads, so to speak, makes it all the more satisfying. That satisfaction may not be consistent throughout the film, but at the end it’s so intricately plotted and fully realized that it still plays out gorgeously.