Written and directed by Djo Munga (as Djo Tunda Wa Munga)
The chaotic urban life of Kinshasa, the largest city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is the setting as rival factions battle over a cache of stolen fuel. Viva Riva! is a great film, among the best I’ve seen in African cinema. While the stereotypes for African films are weird Nigerian/Ghanaian films involving witchcraft, there is a diverse blend of film being produced that deserves a wider audience, and more funding to produce even higher quality cinema.
Gasoline thief Riva returns to Kinshasa with a truck full of pilfered fuel in the midst of the biggest gas shortage in ages. This basically means he gets a huge stack of cash – and the promise of much more, as his fencer is holding off selling the gas until the price goes up even higher! The large amount of American hundred dollar bills gives Riva access to a fast life that most of poor Kinshasa can only dream of. Riva likes the parties and money and being flashy, it is not in his nature to live in the shadows, but to be large.
Riva’s excess and extravaganza lures past associates to his side. His friend J.M. had settled down from his criminal past, having a family. But Riva’s return means J.M. is now going out all night, drinking and whoring it up. Riva sets his sights on a red headed beauty, Nora, who happens to be the kept girl of the local big criminal thug Azor. Despite the dangers, Riva continually pops up to hit on Nora. His success is due in part to Azor’s own failure, though Nora is far more complicated than just a prize to be fought for. But Nora and Azor are the least of Riva’s troubles, as he is being pursued by a violent and relentless opponent named César.
Viva Riva! excels by having a villain who is thoroughly ruthless, destroying anyone who stands between him and his goal, the gasoline that Riva stole from him. César dresses in all white, wears a fancy hat and wire-rimmed glasses, and speaks calmly, looking the part of an upper class intellectual. Despite the appearances, César is an efficient and brutal boss, quick to order torture and deaths to get to his gas. César manipulates and bribes his way through officials, forcing a female militia commander to help him by holding her sister hostage, and gunning down government officials who detain him over immigration reasons. A cunning and sadistic mastermind helps create a memorable foe.
The minor characters in Viva Riva! are well done and memorable. Anto the hustler kid that Riva uses for information, but also attempts to protect as he knows bad things happen to those around him. The prostitute who knows everyone and everyone, constantly selling information to all sides to make money. Azor the local bad dude, who spends his days ignoring Nora and watching porn featuring gigantic women, his mistreatment giving Riva an in.
Riva’s life is a spiral of self-destruction, he blows through the massive amount of cash he earned in binges of drug-fueled prostitution and nights out at the clubs where he buys drinks for anyone and everyone. Riva lives a life yearning for the love of the masses, but wanting that love in a cheap and easy way. Even if Riva had taken the time to earn it honestly, he’d not have the patience or will the cherish it and would move on to the next big score. Even how he acquires his wealth is a step on the path of danger, double-crossing a very dangerous person who was a mentor to him. Part of this stems from his tragic past, a brother who died in an accident that Riva is blamed for. A confrontation with his parents show they are still bitter over the incident, the dead brother is described as the only good one and the visit ends with Riva pummeling his father.
Riva is not unique in one aspect, every character has a life filled with tragedy. Though perhaps coming from war torn areas of Africa, tragic life experiences aren’t that unusual. While some try to make better lives with what they have, others just get swallowed wholesale, destroyed by their past and bringing down others around them before they meet their tragic ends. The cycle of tragedy continues. A haunting scene of J.M. beating on his wife as he leaves her to go become rich, as the children watch from behind windows with tears running down their faces. The ultimate fates of many of the characters is not a peaceful one. Even the child Anto seems he might be headed to a bad place. Riva is aware that everyone around him is being destroyed, and he forces the kid Anto to stay back before the final confrontations so he doesn’t become yet another body. It is one of the few actual acts of good he does.
“Money is like poison, at the end, it kills you” – Nora
The greed and violence and fast life just leads to more trouble. César is yet another representation of this, Riva worked for him in the past, and after Riva betrayed him and absconded with the gas, César is his past returning with a vengeance. A punishing force that leaves bodies in his wake, César is a clear danger to everyone who may be in his way. César and his men openly mock the Congolese people as backwards while at the same time perpetrating brutal acts of violence. Their acts cause headaches for them as well, a trip to jail over immigration issues balloons to the danger of real punishment when one of their interrogation subjects dies of his wounds. Their violent acts preclude gaining allies and lead to betrayals and worse.
The sets and seemingly the city of Kinshasa mirror the theme, a reflection of “past glories” that look good only through the fog of nostalgia. The city is filled with ramshackle construction, crumbling infrastructure, and decaying hotels. Azor lives in a sprawling colonial mansion, with much visible degradation of the fixtures. His fancy cars (many featuring replaced parts and rust) sit uselessly in the driveway, there is no gas in the city to power them. Azor has a lot of decorations about the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, which took place in Kinshasa. Even those decorations are torn and faded, and provide yet another layer of fog. Congo suffers scars from both the horrors of colonialism and from the influence of kleptocratic dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. It’s past is caked in myriad bad history leading to bad history, its future a question of if it can escape the cycle. Viva Riva! doesn’t profess to answer, but the results of the final outcome say more than an answer would.
Rated 9/10 (masked, kidnapped, Africa, club owner, decoration, shipment, church man, decay, statue)
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