Viva Riva! (Music Box Films, R)

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Riva is still young enough to believe in his own immortality, or perhaps he’s just scoped out his chances in life and decided that the odds dictate going for it while he can.



The Democratic Republic of the Congo (the DRC, formerly Zaire) is, for most of its citizens, a tough place to live. A history of colonial abuse followed by homegrown corruption have produced an all-too-familiar situation; although the country is rich in natural resources, most people living there are poor and international measures of population well-being place it near the bottom of the world’s nations.

While most suffer, those who are willing and able to capitalize on the country’s disarray can do very well for themselves. One bright young man who intends to do just that is Riva (Patsha Bay Mukuna) who highjacks a shipment of gasoline from Angola and plans to hold on to it while prices rise. Of course the Angolans he stole it from don’t appreciate his ambition, and a ruthless gang led by the preening César (Hoji Fortuna) is soon on his tail.

Meanwhile Riva just wants to enjoy the good life, recruiting a married friend (Alex Herabo) to party with him and promptly falling for the stunning Nora (Manie Malone) despite the fact that she’s already the mistress of a local crime lord. Clearly Riva is still young enough to believe in his own immortality, or perhaps he’s just scoped out his chances in life and decided that the odds dictate going for it while he can.

Riva is the star of Viva Riva!, a fast-paced gangster film set and shot in the DRC by Djo Tunda Wa Munga. Riva is no angel but he’s easy to like because he’s such a small-time hustler—a single shipment of gasoline is small potatoes compared to what’s been stolen from the country already—and also because Mukuna is such a charismatic actor. Besides, in an environment where nearly everyone from the army to the church is corrupt you can’t blame an ambitious young man for having an eye for the main chance.

Antoine Roch’s digital photography is one of the film’s strong points—it takes you right into the action from the opening scene of a fuel crisis in Kinshasa through all the chases and confrontation and steamy love scenes that follow. Another huge plus is the number of vivid minor characters Munga includes in his script, for example a lesbian commander (Marlene Longage) and her girlfriend (Angelique Mbumb).

The editing of Viva Riva! at times seems abrupt but the film is so rich in characters and action that this is a minor quibble. It certainly doesn’t stint on the violence and sex, both of which are shown far more explicitly than is common in American movies. No complaints there; this is clearly a movie for adults who don’t need to be sheltered by cinematic euphemisms, and showing the horrifying effects of violence is a far more honest choice than portraying the kind of glamorized fantasy violence we’re used to from American action movies.

Viva Riva! is worth seeing simply because it’s a well-done genre film. Add in the skillful use of the DRC setting and the chance to see a number of excellent African actors little known in the U.S. and its appeal reaches far beyond the action movie crowd. Clearly Munga is a talent to watch, and the polish of this film suggests we can look forward to more African features in American movie houses in the future. | Sarah Boslaugh


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