Love and lust, life and death: Viva Riva! takes up these and other issues with rare energy and originality. The story of a violent gang battle sparked by a severe fuel crisis, it’s also the first feature film from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in more than two decades.
Djo Tunda Wa Munga’s impressive debut is propelled by the charisma of Patasha Bay as Riva, a small time criminal who, after 10 years plying his trade in Angola, returns home to Kinshasa, a sprawling, impoverished city, with an astronomical murder rate. Riva brings with him a massive shipment of hijacked gasoline, worth a small fortune in the fuel-starved Congo.
It’s been a long journey, and now, all Riva wants is to kick back and have a good time with his sex-obsessed childhood friend, J.M. (Alex Herabo). J.M. has settled down with a wife and family, but he essentially abandons them without a second thought to follow his old pal through the hectic, thrilling, and too often cruel nightlife of Kinshasa. Riva develops a dangerous fascination with Nora (Manie Malone), who just so happens to be the arm candy of a local gangster named Azor (Diplome Amekindra).
As Riva and J.M. party their way through Kinshasa, someone even more dangerous than Azor is looking for them. Cesar (Hoji Fortuna) is Riva’s boss from Angola, and it’s his gasoline Riva has stolen. Cesar bullies the local commandant (Marlene Longage) into finding and punishing Riva, a mission he conducts with some visible pleasure, torturing, bribing, and intimidating his way closer and closer to his target.
As hunter and prey head toward a messy, catastrophic collision, the story turns grim. But the hopelessness never becomes oppressive. Munga balances this intricate plot with detailed characterizations. Riva is resilient, his ingenuity impressive and entertaining. But even as these thugs and outlaws are capable of extreme revenge and sudden violence (think: Oldboy), they go about their business with a remarkable assuredness and casual immorality. Riva has a proverbial “zest for life,” even as he nonchalantly places it in danger. And as J.M. incessantly cheats on his wife, Cesar rationalizes his sins by claiming Jesus too was an outlaw.
The men’s simultaneously vivid and sinister self-images are reflected in Viva Riva!‘s cinematography, which captures the city’s lively nightlife, from the clubs where vibrant lights slice through shadows to improvised outdoor gatherings where some young hustlers like Anto (Jordan N’Tunga) ply their trade while others are showcased in explicit, and inventively staged, sex scenes.
Such imagery—enhanced by a score that combines throbbing club music and ominous, discordant tones—makes Viva Riva! a compelling crime film. At the same time, it highlights the daily costs of corruption in the DRC: people must literally fight for a cab and anyone, regardless of station, can be bought, tortured or shot down in the street. Riva and everyone around him share the same bleak expectations, that they’ll live short, brutal lives and suffer terrible ends. He navigates this arena with recklessness and a seemingly carefree grin, but he also knows what’s coming, that money is only a temporary fix, that death is inevitable.