On the mean streets of Kinshasa where fuel is a sparse and pricy commodity, Viva (a charismatically-laidback Patsha Bay), a mercenary-type and thrill-seeker with a devil-may-care attitude rolls into town with a lorry-load of stolen fuel. Hooking up with an old sidekick he begins hitting the local night spots, flaunting the money he’s made as far. His curiosity and voracious sexual appetite brings him into contact with the local gangster’s moll, Nora (Manie Malone), and soon he’s trying to avoid her vengeful boyfriend and his henchmen.
To make matters worse a trio of men from Angolan, led by the vicious and flamboyantly-dressed César (Hoji Fortuna) are also in the neighbourhood to hunt down the culprit who has stole a large consignment of fuel from them. Aided by a lesbian army commander who has been emotionally blackmailed into helping with their retrieval scheme, they will stop at nothing to take back (by extreme force) what was once theirs.
A highly confident debut by the Congolese-born writer-producer and director Djo Munga, Viva Riva! is a violent, engrossing and incredibly sexually-charged thriller. Shot on the Cannon D5 camera, it also looks really fantastic. What is obviously a modest budget has been stretched well and by placing all of the action within real locations helps to add a real authenticity to the piece. The rundown, seemingly lawless milieu is populated by a whole host of colourful and utterly corrupt characters (even the local clergyman is not above taking in criminals if the price is right).
With elements of gangster, action and film noir, it’s clear that Munga has drawn his inspiration from a number of tropes from those genres (particularly the stunning Malone’s modern day representation of a femme fatale) and at times the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo even resembles some kind of post-apocalyptic landscape where bartering and dodgy deals are a daily occurrence and casual swapping of bodily fluids is easily initiated.
Part of what sets this aside from just another Hollywood knock-off however, is the director’s resistance in ramping up the visuals and that distinct lack of flash on display and that very liberal attitude towards sex and sexuality makes for a refreshing and visceral viewing experience. The film has been likened to the works of Tony Scott by some critics but this comparison is lazy and unjustified. If any of Scott’s recent output was anywhere close to what has been achieved here, he would be considered on the same par as his brother.
A fittingly downbeat and uncompromising ending again helps reinforce the realistic situation and further distances the film from those many predictable, cut and dried pictures from the west.
Picking up a number of top awards at the African Movie Academy Awards in Nigeria this year, on the strength of Viva Riva! it won’t be long until Hollywood comes a-knocking for Munga and it just may well help to kick-start a film industry of sorts in the Congo too. It’s heartening to see this kind of genre film come from such an unlikely place and it’s further encouraging to see it done so incredibly well.