MOVIE REVIEW: Viva Riva!
A violent insight to life in Congo
In an autobiographical article promoting the U.S. theatrical release of Viva Riva!, director Djo Tunda wa Munga references his cinematic influences as a teen growing up in Congo: Brian De Palma’s Body Double, Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour, even David Cronenberg’s insane Crash. An impressive list to be sure, and in very poetic fashion he muses, “When desire is plastered on the screen in such a strong and obvious way, it is kind of a revolution.” This complex approach to filmmaking insinuates a strong stylistic point of view predicated on scathing social commentary, a desire to uproot the status quo through artistic subversion.
Unfortunately, after watching Viva Riva!, a sweaty and simplistic neo-noir about a low level thief named Riva (Patsha Bay Mukana) who transports stolen gas to the fuel-starved town of Kinshasa, it’s clear Munga’s influences are currently only skin deep. None of De Palma’s terrifying menace, Bunuel’s comedic darkness, or Cronenberg’s sleek discomfort is apparent in the filmmaker’s eroticized simplification of the American crime-thriller. Instead, Viva Riva! spends two hours haphazardly trying to live up to the exclamation point at the end of its title.
Following in the footsteps of classic Hollywood film noir, Viva Riva!creates a serpentine plot full of role reversals, double-crosses, and collective greed. The film opens with solemn images of poverty-stricken Kinshasa embroiled in a gas crisis (long lines, traffic stoppage). Without much urgency, Riva cruises into town driving a big rig filled to the brim with oil drums like a prodigal son proudly returning home. Hot on Riva’s heals is an Angolan gangster named Cesar (Hoji Fortuna), a true-blue sadist and the rightful owner of said gas who will kill and maim anyone to reclaim his product.
Like most of the dire consequences staring Riva directly in the face, Cesar’s impending wrath doesn’t affect him in the least. Instead, Riva quickly entices his blue-collar friend J.M. (Alex Herbo) to leave his family and partake in a night of debauchery, including a visit to the local brothel and hours of incessant drinking. The two set off to blow money like real American gangsters, and during one tryst Riva falls for Nora (Manie Malone), a local gangster’s girlfriend who is bored to tears by emotional indifference. If the history of film noir is any indicator, this will undoubtedly be Riva’s last seduction.
Through a myriad of heightened sex scenes and sudden bursts of violence, Viva Riva! attempts to create a landscape of visceral attraction. The crime story surface spins a familiar spider’s web, and stock characters (femme fatale, weak-willed supporting characters) spring trap doors for Riva who can’t see the forest for the trees. Herein lies the crippling problem Munga never solves; Riva is such an apathetic, insipid character that the audience never feels any connection with his increasing plight. If he doesn’t care what happens to himself or those he loves, why should we?
Despite a meandering story that grows crazier as it folds onto itself, Viva Riva! has a few interesting elements hidden under the blanket of cliché. Cesar, the devil himself dressed in a sharp white suit, is hilariously frustrated throughout the narrative, and ironically the only sign of life. His continuous angst became a kind of cracked mirror to my own palpable ill will. After a while, it seems like Cesar wants to kill off every character just so the movie will end already. Then there’s the underlining social commentaries about the vicious racism between Congo and Angola referenced in a few dialogue sequences. But this is just one of many untapped subtexts that aren't the filmmaker’s main concerns, hinted at but never framed within a worthy context. In fact, Viva Riva!’s one-note intentions get summed up perfectly by a knowing line directed at Riva late in the film: “Drink and fornicate, a life’s ambition.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.