Viva Riva! opens with a panoramic view of Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and it is presented as a city bustling with activity. The next two close-ups show money changing hands and gasoline being siphoned, and thus the key elements that drive the narrative have been established. In this city, everyone is looking to get their hands on those two valuable commodities, cash and fuel, and they will do anything to achieve that goal. One man who currently possesses both is Riva (played with insouciant arrogance by Patsha Bay), who arrives back in the Congo having stolen a few barrel-loads of gas from a group of crooks in neighbouring Angola. Angolan gangster César (Hoji Fortuna) is on his trail, but with beautiful femme fatale Nora (Manie Malone) in his sights and a thick wad of cash in his pocket, Riva is only interested in having a good time.
And a good time is all but guaranteed with Viva Riva!, the first film to be produced in the war-torn Congo for many decades. This setting does give Viva Riva! a particular flavour and atmosphere, even if its narrative trajectory and characters may seem to be drawn from familiar archetypes. Riva himself is a cocksure protagonist whose confidence is often undermined by his naïveté; unaware of the trouble he's walking into until he is knee-deep in it, but always confident in his own ability to wriggle free. Bay is a solid actor but first-time director Djo Munga was wise to surround him with a handful of more colourful individuals capable of sharing the dramatic burden. The most memorable of these is Fortuna's César, the sharply dressed criminal whose quietly menacing presence dominates most of the scenes he appears in. Fortuna has a great way of directing his gaze over his shades to intimidate those standing in his path, but even he can't avoid getting entangled in the complicated fabric of Congolese society, spending vital hours locked in a cell at the whim of a corrupt cop.
That's an example of how Munga uses his characters and the situations they find themselves to suggest the greater ills in Kinshasa at large without turning his film into a statement. César also reveals the sense of prejudice that seems to exist between Congolese and Angolan natives, while Munga uses other narrative strands to display the corruption that is endemic at every level of Congolese society (even the church is indicted), but the director has the confidence to let his story flow and to let political commentary exist in the background. His focus is on delivering an energetic, exciting portrait of criminal life in Congo's capital city, and in this respect he succeeds superbly. His direction is suitably brash and forthright, sustaining an engrossing momentum and punching up his story with frank doses of eroticism and bloodshed. It is a combustible brew.
The film's sexual element is particularly interesting. The grim situation for many women in the Congo is all too familiar, so it is notable that Munga has written two strong female characters in key roles. As the lesbian soldier forced to assist César in order to save her sister, Marlene Longange is a sly, quick-thinking presence sensitively played by the actress, while the object of Riva's affection, Nora, is a seductive, flame-haired beauty who uses her ability to transfix male admirers to her advantage. The fact that these strong-willed female characters exist in a film produced in the Congo may come as a surprise, but it's a sign of Munga's determination to do things differently and provide us with a fresh view of his country. Viva Riva! is a sleazily entertaining and eye-opening ride, and it's the work of a filmmaker with a strong understanding of genre dynamics who clearly has a bright future ahead of him. Perhaps the film's success will inspire other Congolese filmmakers to pick up a camera and tell stories about their troubled country, but if they do, I doubt many of the resulting films will be as much fun as Viva Riva!
Read my interview with Djo Tunda Wa Munga here