It’s not every day you see a film from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In fact, in all my years of sitting up, taking nourishment and watching a lot of movies, I’ve never stumbled across a Congolese film. Despite its seemingly exotic country of origin, however, Viva Riva! is hardly an unfamiliar product.
This Africanized gangster flick traffics in the same lusty fatalism as most iconic crime sagas—from 1932’s Scarface to ... oh, let’s just go with 1983’s Scarface. In other words: It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye. First-time writer-director Djo Munga previously produced a pair of Africa-set documentaries (Congo in Four Acts and State of Mind). While harrowing documentaries about ethnic atrocities are the sort of thing we Westerners expect to see coming from Munga’s continent, Viva Riva! is far closer to the sort of fare that Africans themselves patronize at their local cinema. It’s got gunplay, hot sex and the occasional dose of black humor. What more could you ask for?
Our antihero in this dangerous, faraway world is cocky bad boy Riva (Patsha Bay)—whose titular salute may be premature. When we meet him on screen, Riva has just returned to his old neighborhood in Kinshasa after a decade-long exile. The film is tightlipped about Riva’s absence. Was he in jail? On the run? Whatever the circumstances, he’s come home with a new get-rich-quick scheme in mind. Riva’s in possession of an entire shipment of gasoline. And in a country as resource-deprived as the DRC, gas is as good as gold. Now, he’s simply got to figure out a way to unload the merchandise.
As is typical with this sort of scheme, obstacles present themselves almost immediately. For starters, there’s the gang of very angry Angolans from whom Riva “acquired” that shipment of liquid gold. These Angolan nasties are led by a natty ghoul in a spotless white suit (icy actor Hoji Fortuna) who’d love nothing better than to see Riva’s head separated from his neck. As if that weren’t trouble enough for one man, Riva goes nightclubbing with a trusted childhood pal and ends up spotting wild-haired hottie Nora (French TV actress Manie Malone). Riva turns on the charm—despite ample evidence that Nora is the main squeeze of a hot-tempered local crime lord. Not the smartest move, my man.
Viva, to be perfectly honest, isn’t the most sympathetic protagonist. But then, neither is Tony Montana in Scarface. Riva’s a criminal, a con man and a horndog. We’re not meant to like him exactly, but we are meant to admire his cheeky bravado—an attribute he exhibits in spades. Bay, a first-time actor, has plenty of charisma and gives Riva just the right amount of heedless, carpe diem courage.
Despite the fact that the film won six African Movie Academy Awards, Munga clearly isn’t trying to make art here. He’s aiming for good old-fashioned exploitation. The story is a basic one, ripe for explosions of violence and injections of eroticism. We’ve got a simple, highly coveted MacGuffin (the gasoline) and we’ve got a lot of very interested parties who will stop at nothing to get their hands on it. Double-crossing, daylight robbery, seduction and the ever-reliable bullet to the back of the head are just a few of the techniques we’re in store for. It’s like somebody crossed Casablanca with New Jack City and didn’t skimp on the boobs and blood. The setting, however, does add an interesting third-world desperation to the familiar proceedings. We get the impression that everyone here—from cops to the military to the church—is on the make. This sets the stage for an appropriately grim neo-noir that showcases Kinshasa in all its tense, vibrant, dirty, sweaty glory.
Viva Riva! is no documentary. Though well observed and given a sheen of authenticity by its real locations, the film is all caricature and heightened reality. Thankfully, Munga isn’t a self-righteous moralist pronouncing judgment on the corrupt. Instead, he’s a professional cynic who sees the bleak black humor in all of this criminality and carnal behavior. This gives his admittedly formulaic tale a playfulness missing in a lot of recent crime sagas (even great ones like Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet).
The fact that Viva Riva! fits so comfortably next to so much Hollywood product may disappoint a few viewers. On the other hand, it’s comforting to note that, half a world away, people still like a little sex and violence in their Saturday night entertainment. After all, that’s the international language of film—whether you speak English or Lingala.