Title: Viva Riva!
Writer-director: Djo Tunda Wa Munga
Starring: Patsha Bay Mukuna, Manie Malone, Hoji Fortuna, Marlene Longage, Alex Herabo, Diplome Amekindra
Foreign cinema conjures up a collection of very specific stereotypes, even (perhaps especially) for seasoned film fans. After all, myriad cultural dictates play a huge role in not only what types of movies get made internationally, but which are lauded and/or positioned in a fashion to then penetrate the American cinematic market. “Viva Riva!”, a flamboyant and sprawling crime picture whose style and plotting recollects movies like “Shottas” and “City of God”, is a foreign film that smashes some of these preconceptions of what an African movie is, can or should be.
Plot-wise, “Viva Riva!” is fairly simple and straightforward, charting the return of native son and small-time hood Riva (Patsha Pay Mukuna, exuding a raw charisma) to Kinshasa, Congo, where he turns a quick score by stealing truckloads of precious, in-demand fuel from his Angolan crime boss, Cesar (Hoji Fortuna). Out to spread some of that cheddar and have a good time at the city’s bars and strip clubs, Riva quickly goes Charlie Brown — which, in this case, is to say he falls under the sway of a red-haired girl, Nora (Manie Malone). Problem is, Nora is spoken for, the girlfriend of quasi-ineffectual local criminal kingpin Azor (Diplome Amekindra), a descendent of Congolese kings who keeps his woman under his thumb.
Riva’s friend J.M. (Alex Herabo) tries to show him a good time and keep him out of trouble, but Riva is intent on pursuing Nora, and despite a few half-hearted dismissals she does little to definitively turn him down. Meanwhile, Cesar and his band of violent thugs make their way into town, methodically tracking down Riva through a campaign as much rooted in brute force as intimidation. After a period of time, Riva wins Nora over by returning a diamond earring Azor pawned off to pay a debt. But is she really ready to cast her lot with him, or merely using Riva as a means to the more personal end of escape?
Writer-director Djo Tunda Wa Munga — whose film justifiably scored six African Movie Academy Awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design and two Supporting Actor prizes — has a confidence that comes through in virtually every pore of “Viva Riva!”. His film is marked by a sexual frankness certainly at odds with much of African cinema, but just as striking if not more so is the unfussy, matter-of-fact candor with which the filmmaker treats the insidious reality of sociopolitical corruption in his country, as well as the juxtaposition of impoverished shantytowns with bustling, pulsating nightclubs. Tonally, there’s a certain dispassionate detachment that serves this material surprisingly well, abetted by a top-to-bottom technical polish. (The movie’s cinematography is especially gorgeous.)
Nora is something of a cipher, oscillating between victim and cunning golddigger in a manner that doesn’t completely make sense. One also surmises that some of the subtitled translations lose a bit of flavor; after getting shot, one gangster laments, “We have to be more ruthless!” Still, “Viva Riva!” is a colorful, accomplished and involving crime drama with an evocative real-world backdrop, and proof that some genres can translate into foreign markets and back again, with glossy ease.
Written by: Brent Simon