DVD Review: Viva Riva!

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MSRP $29.96
RUNNING TIME 96 minutes
• “Special what now?” – The distributor

The Pitch

Harsh, sexy noir set in a locale you don’t usually see in the movies? Ya’ll should be salivating over this one.

The Humans

Patsha Bay, Manie Malone, Hoji Fortuna, Marlene Longange

The Nutshell

Congolese criminal Riva has had a fruitful time abroad in Angola, having stolen several thousand gallons of valuable gasoline from his contemporaries. Now, he’s back in Kinshasa, looking to sell his stolen bounty, but gets sidetracked when he falls for Nora, the girlfriend of a local gang leader. Compounding his troubles is the fact that his old pals from Angola aren’t happy about the whole “double crossing them” thing, and are hunting for him.

The Lowdown

A new, exciting filmmaker has emerged from the DRC. Djo Tunda Wa Munga has crafted a movie so gritty that it makes other crime films feel like satin silk. That’s thanks in no small part to the atmosphere. Through Wa Munga’s lens, the environment of Kinshasa seems to drip danger. It’s the perfect setting for noir, a place feels both real and heightened at the same time.

Patsha Bay is great as the laid-back, lusty Riva, but this show belongs to Manie Malone. Nora one for the all-time hall of fame of noir sex symbols (And she occupies her own special place in the pantheon, too. Barbara Stanwyck never urinated on screen). She radiates sensuality with every tiny gesture, slaying with a look. It utterly makes sense that Riva would pursue her in spite of the considerable hazard to his health. The push and pull between these two is terrific, a rare tryst that feels not only authentic but genuinely perilous. Nora isn’t a femme fatale, but she’s no man’s toy, and her shifting fortunes are some of the highlights of the film. The biggest disappointment is that she sort of just disappears after a certain point.

While there is an overall macguffin motivating the action (that truckfull of precious gas), the movie more consists of the various characters bouncing around with one another in different combinations. While Riva and Nora court, vicious enforcer Cesar (Fortuna) and his goons have come over from Angola to extract vengeance and stolen goods. They forcibly enlist the help of a local army camp commandant (Longage), and the commandant, known only by her rank, is probably my second-favorite character in the film. She’s tough and competent and utterly resents having to help out scum who seem to have only half an idea what they are doing.

There’s also Riva’s idiot best friend who manages to be both a henpecked husband and a shameless philanderer at the same time, a young boy who becomes something like Riva’s sidekick, an unscrupulous priest looking to buy the purloined gasoline, and many more people both major and incidental. Unlike our domestic crime films, which can comfortably settle into familiar tropes of character, background details, and criminal activities, Viva Riva! has to establish an entire world from scratch. It does so admirably.

In fact, I wondered at multiple points how much I was missing by not knowing too much about contemporary goings-on in the DRC. There’s the gas crisis, which is easy enough to understand. And Cesar and the Angolans’ constant put-downs of the Congolese demonstrate some nationalistic/racial animosity between the groups. What subtleties am I missing? The movie feels lived-in and convincing, so how true to the streets of Kinshasa is it?

As might be expected of the genre, there are plenty of twists, turns, and back stabbings. Riva’s fun can’t go on forever, and soon the character collisions are racking up body counts. The schemes aren’t too convoluted, but the bodily harm involved is brutal. The action here never feels fun, and I wonder if that’s a symptom of the culture that produced this film. I’d expect that Congolese might be less enamored of violence on screen than we are. At the same time, there’s clear influence from outside films; Cesar’s pimp suit is evidence enough of that. There’s a fascinating mix going into this movie, and I’d love to have a sit down with Djo Tunda Wa Munga and learn about how he approaches this stuff.

Viva Riva! is ugly but sexy as all get out, a movie that throbs uncontrollably with vicious energy. Don’t let this one go overlooked.

The Package

These bones are bare. Which is a shame, because I’d love to learn more about what went into the making of this film. But the movie is definitely good enough on its own, a must-buy if you’re a crime fan and a must-at-least-rent if you’re just a fan of quality.


Out of a Possible 5 Stars

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