Viva Riva is sprinting from the opening shot and never slows down; it is a riot of color that revels in the utterly corrupt marketplace of Kinshasa that ensconces local criminals, military commandants, religious figures, and seemingly every innocent bystander in the city within a corrosive web that would be depressing if it weren’t one of the most entertaining films of the year. Djo Munga crafts a film with a remarkable propulsive energy that shies from nothing – violence, sex, drugs, and self-destruction are not something shown with any apology. Kinshasa is one of the largest cities in Africa (over ten million) with one of the highest murder rates in the world (112 per 100,000). It is infested with powerful gangs, a large population of street children, and cheap guns at the root of a region that has been more or less at war since the mid-1990s with every surrounding nation contributing to a smouldering conflict. This is one place where a film with brutal violence and a high body count makes complete sense. Towards that end, one could see Munga’s film as exploitation if it were not so well made.
Rather, it captures a tone of brash honesty, avoiding any hand-wringing about its subject matter. This is a work about self-destructive people in one of the most dangerous urban centers on Earth, and their driving force is the internal need for security, wealth, and sex. Life is short in Kinshasa, and it behooves the young to take foolish risks; and who needs a secure future when the world is on fire anyway?
Small time thief Riva (Patsha Bay Mukuna) steals truckloads of gas from an Angolan crime boss, and returns home to throw around some cash, put away liver-bending amounts of beer, and live like a bigshot. He is the man with the fuel, and in a fuel shortage that man owns the town. He hungers for Nora (Manie Malone), the enigmatic and dangerous trophy girl of local crime boss Azor. The charismatic Riva runs from the Angolans while pursuing Nora, who is an en fuego femme fatale. Graphic sex scenes, cruel violence, and an amoral crowd willing to sell out for any price creates a diseased melange that captivates for its lack of criticism. It is what it is, and defies the audience to pretend they would do differently in the same rotten place. On the battlefield where men compete for money, women compete for men, each compete for the spoils of love and war, caution can be as foolish as recklessness.
Viva Riva amuses itself with the plasticity of societal roles. Riva is the most generous and identifiable, looking to enjoy what may be a brief time on top of the pile. Nora is more than willing to help push him off, and he even seems to enjoy the fall – so would anyone with a woman that lethal. His Angolan boss quotes scripture, struts like a pimp, and murders with ease; he substitutes for a nonexistent authority in this town, and makes all the rules. A commandant is an enforcing legal agent, but the Angolan corrupts her quickly, as the free market corrupts the government to do its will. The Church has an interest in the gas that Riva has secured, though it is less for fueling the saving of souls and more for increasing its power in the city. Men may pursue sex, but women call their own shots when it comes to partners – they are figures of power as often as men. The comic and tragic are welded together incongruously, just the way they should be.
The soundtrack thumps with a driven urgency that neatly weaves clubs and streets as minor transitions. The cinematography creates a luminous picture of a city in utter decay, as if there is too much entertainment to be had to worry about the problems. Munga brings a bombastic craft that sweeps along the audience, cynic and idealist alike. All the while, there is a undercurrent of danger, as though all souls will fall sooner rather than later. To take on a crime boss is to flirt with a near-suicidal level of risk, although a life of menial labor scarcely seems preferable. Viva Riva pulsates with an uncommon energy that announces a new and important voice for African directors – Djo Munga will be one to watch.