Viva Riva! – Movie Review

New cinema from the new Congo. Suspend disbelief a bit for this one.

Take a walk on the wild side with Riva (Patsha Bay) from the yeasty slums of seething Kinshasa to the isolated, fortified haunts of the ultra-rich. The slums are where the good people live.

The fortresses are the redoubts of men like the brutal Azor (Diplome Amekindra) who make their living supplying drugs to the poor multitudes in the city. Chaos is king in Kinshasa ever since the Congo became a nearly failed state offering only minimal law and order. Unbelievably, it makes a great backdrop for an inner-city tale of greed, sex and violence.

Riva is a small-time operator with his heart and soul still in the slums but his imagination and courage in the sparkling neighborhoods of the rich. He has big plans and the chutzpah to pull them off. Riva sticks up for the little guy, he has friends in low places and he pulls them all into his latest scheme. The scheme is selling a truckload of stolen gasoline to hoards of gas-deprived vehicle owners in Kinshasa who will pay anything for it.

He also sticks up for his monumental sexual appetite. When his eyes land on the simmering and dangerous Nora (Manie Malone) his mighty sexual appetite may have exceeded his cunning and courage. Only time will tell if that remarkable sex act conducted with Nora through the chain link fence will be his last.

Thrown into this mix is the foreign crime lord César (Hoji Fortuna) with an agenda entirely his own. It seems that the wily Riva may have stolen that truckload of gasoline from César on the kingpin’s own turf in Angola. As it turns out, those Angolan mobsters are much more dangerous than their Congolese counterparts.

When César invites the unfortunate driver of the stolen gasoline truck to a cookout, the driver finds out that he is the barbeque.

Fortuna is the star of this film. However, this is to be expected because he has the best part, the part of the psycho bad guy. Everybody wants to play that part. Riva is the updated, digital, martial arts version of Shaft, fighting in the ‘hood for the ordinary drug addict. César is a composite of Jesse James, Dillinger and Al Capone.

He is hyper-intelligent and driven more by pride than he is by greed. His appetite for wealth and power exceeds his appetite for the sensual pleasures of the world. This makes much more dangerous than the vicious but feckless dog Azor.

For César and Riva it will be a fight for the death for pride and, of course, the fortune in juice: gasoline, the nectar of the western world.

If it is not already obvious, there is not a lot of upside in this flick. This story could have had a bit of humor here and there. Even better, it should have made a more solid statement about the politics of the region.

There are references to the curse of colonization; how the addiction to wealth and power started with the Western world. This should have been further exploited. Instead, there are too many Keystone Kop street chases and inconsequential fights.

The movie starts to get somewhere when it paints women and children as relatively normal, contrasting them to the more worldly men who have been infected by foreign values. This could have resonated with the contrast of sustainable native traditions to unsustainable Western consumption. However, the story did not mine that wealth.

The linking of past colonialism to the abandonment of traditional values would have made a more solid foundation for the surprisingly nihilistic viewpoint of the screenplay. The instinctual human sense that instilled a sense of honor and respect in the population is gone, and boy are we going to be sorry. Finally, it exploits raw violence and sensuality for ends that are uncertain.

Although the movie is a valid look at the Congo today (a least a part of it) warts and all, there has to be something good going on there. The fight over the gasoline and the concentration on sex and violence comes off as less “Public Enemy” and more “Road Warrior.” The problem is that the film does not seem to get the joke.

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Directed and Written by: Djo Munga
Starring: Patsha Bay, Manie Malone and Hoji Fortuna 
Release Date: June 10, 2011
MPAA: Not Rated
Runtime: 98 minutes
Country: Democratic Republic of the Congo / France / Belgium
Language: French / Lingala
Color: Color