Judge Daryl Loomis is the champion of syphoning gas.
Kinshasa is calling.
I've never seen a Congolese movie and I reckon that few other people have, either, given that the country's film industry was shut down 25 years ago. While there were documentaries and things like that, there were no feature films made in the country for nearly three decades…until now, that is. And like Athena, popping fully formed from the head of Zeus, Viva Riva! doesn't mark a return of Congolese cinema in some nascent state. Instead, it's one of the best action thrillers I've seen in some time. Viva Riva! indeed.
Facts of the Case
Riva (Patsha Bay), a small time crook, has just returned from Angola with the biggest score of his life: a truckload of gasoline. With a major gas shortage in the Congo, he plans to sell it off slowly for enormous profits. His appetite for women, drink, and making it rain betrays his intentions, though, and Azor (Diplome Amekindra), the local kingpin, sets his eyes on Riva's prize. As Riva eludes Azor's wrath while also sleeping with his girlfriend, a more dangerous threat emerges: the Angolans from whom he stole the gas.
Of the many things that Viva Riva! gets right, maybe the most important, is how writer/director Djo Munga makes Kinshasa, capital of the Congo, its own distinct character. Like many of the great noirs out there (and this, in a certain respect, can be considered a kind of neo-noir), the inherent corruption of the streets becomes one of the film's most important aspects, and it's never even directly mentioned. Nobody makes a speech about it; it is simply a force that the people live within. Some might struggle against it, but Riva and the rest of the crooks and gangsters in the film know they're better off swimming with the stream instead of fighting.
But that's just one of a multitude of aspects that make Viva Riva! such a damned entertaining movie. Munga utilizes the oldest crime story in the book, but gives it a fresh take both with the location and the object of everyone's lust. It's not a precious jewel, a rare artifact, or any one item. Instead, it's a resource that many around these parts look at as a fundamental right of existence, but one that is so scarce elsewhere that people will kill to get their hands on some.
Munga milks that for all it's worth and delivers a high action thriller, filled with sex and brutal violence without ever going overboard. The content fits right in with the plotting and Riva almost immediately becomes one of the more likeable antiheroes in some time. He's not the kind of guy you want to bring home to mother (who knows what he might try with her), but he sure is fun to watch.
Patsha Bay's performance captures the Riva character perfectly. Energetic, confident, and full of life, he is totally natural as the young upstart crook. It's not just him, though; all the performances are fantastic, assured, and perfect fits for the characters. Hoji Fortuna's Cesar, the Angolan crime lord, is the embodiment of evil, while Amekindra's Azor falls somewhere in the middle, in love with his local clout, but ultimately powerless in the face of larger villains. Probably the most complete performance is from Manie Malone as Nora, Azor's moll. She's at the heart of it all and, really, is the only one who doesn't seem purely corrupt. Pretty dang corrupt, but not completely, which is saying something in this kind of story.
Munga delivers some pretty strong stuff here. It's violent, sexy, and exciting, full of life in ways that big budget Hollywood fare rarely matches. It's not a perfect film, but I'm thrilled to have seen it and can't wait for more from Munga and, hopefully, Congolese film in general.
Viva Riva! arrives from Music Box Films with a strong DVD package. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is strong, if not perfect, with excellent clarity and detail that still maintains the film's gritty look. Black levels are nice and deep, while flesh tones and colors are realistic. There is a little bit of digital noise in the corners of some of the brighter scenes, but it's hardly distracting. Sound is strong, as well, with a big, full surround mix that makes good use of all the channels. Dialog is consistently crisp, music is nice and loud with good bass, and there's fairly broad dynamic range throughout the spectrum.
Extras are slim, but very good. It starts with a ten minute interview with the director, who goes into various aspects of his filmmaking process and what he was trying to accomplish with the movie. The other, much better extra is Munda's 2009 short film, Papy. This is an excellent hour-long piece of work focusing on a husband dealing with the fallout of discovering that his wife is HIV-positive and that he is the one who gave it to her. It's a far more serious piece than Viva Riva! and it shows the clear talent that he displays in the newer project.
Viva Riva! isn't a revelation in crime cinema, but it's a seriously enjoyable piece of entertainment that any fan of the genre will relish. Slickly produced with tons of atmosphere and excellent performances, it's an excellent film that I highly recommend.
Viva Congolese cinema!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Music Box Films
• Short Film
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