Director: Djo Tunda Wa Munga
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is yet another country where film production is extremely rare. Political instability and a lack of infrastructure present significant obstacles to aspiring Congolese filmmakers, so it’s remarkable that a film as polished and enjoyable as Viva Riva! was ever made there – especially by a first-time director. The visual flair and high production values are pure Hollywood, and they immediately set this film apart from the smaller-scale African films I’ve blogged about so far.
Riva is a charismatic and roguish criminal from Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC. Kinshasa is in the middle of a crippling oil shortage, and the film opens with Riva smuggling a shipment of stolen oil across the border from Angola.
Riva lives for the moment, and has no grand plan for the money he makes from the oil. After giving a share to his elderly parents, he pockets the rest and heads out in search of all the debauchery that Kinshasa’s nightlife has to offer. Swept up in a whirlwind of clubs, booze, and women, the following scenes give a depiction of the Congo that you won’t find anywhere else: seductively vibrant, full of life, and pulsing with relentless energy.
For a glorious night, Riva has Kinshasa in the palm of his hand. But his sense of invincibility is swiftly shattered. He impulsively has a fling with Nora, the girlfriend of a local gangster, and finds himself a highly wanted man. And to make matters worse, the Angolan crime lord from whom he stole the oil has followed him home, and is coming to collect his due.
Viva Riva! has been compared to City of God, which I wrote about as my entry for Brazil. Both films are frenetic crime dramas set in the seedy underworld of an impoverished city. However, I was reminded more of my entry for Cameroon, The Bloodettes. Like Viva Riva!, that film was set amidst a vibrant, flashy nightlife that gave the plot a furious rhythm and unforgettable atmosphere, and featured impulsive, opportunistic heroes who found themselves desperate and on the run after a crime gone wrong. Viva Riva! is a solid, well-crafted thriller that also showcases a little-seen corner of the globe, and for that it gets my recommendation.