Directed as a sophomore effort by Djo Tunda Wa Munga, the Belgian-French-Congolese co-production Viva Riva! is a tough, lean, gritty, and cunningly plotted adrenaline rush -- a lightning-paced gauntlet through the streets, homes, and back alleys of the Congo that never stops to take a breath as its characters attempt to dodge bullets and beatings.
Patsha Bay stars as Riva, a cocky yet likable hood who siphons a cache of fuel from a group of Angolans, thereby contributing to the local petrol shortage. He flees to the city of Kinshasa, where he plans to sell the fuel and make a fortune. But he’s earned the wrath of a blood-hungry Angolan gangster named Cesar (Hoji Fortuna), who claims ownership of the gasoline and feels enraged by the young man’s thievery. On the side, Cesar has kidnapped a young girl, and leverages this to his advantage by blackmailing the girl’s sister -- a local woman in the Congolese military named Commandante (Marlene Longange) -- to obtain knowledge of Riva’s whereabouts. Meanwhile, Riva falls hard for Nora (Manie Malone), the sultry mistress of violent thug Azor (Diplome Amekindra), and thinks nothing of attempting to steal her away from her psychopathic lover.
Within the framework of a crime thriller, Riva delivers. Individual sequences are uniformly slick, tense, and exciting. It takes Munga about 15 or 20 minutes to set up the intersecting story threads, but once he does, his steps never falter. He uses graphic violence and sex to particularly jarring effect. The beatings are appropriately brutal and sadistic, with original touches such as a scene where Cesar pours the hot ashes from a fire over a victim’s face after failing to get what he wants. The sexuality waxes erotic and equally offbeat, as in a scene where Riva and Nora have oral sex through an opening in a wrought-iron gate.
However, one keeps wishing for Munga to transcend the limitations of the film’s genre. We can give the movie its due, but its highlights are the fundamental ingredients of exploitation films, and we never quite forget that. Aside from the presence of Nora, the picture isn’t driven by multidimensional characterizations; instead, it seems guided entirely by the conventions of a thousand other crime pictures. Nor is it culturally specific enough -- with the combination of action and indigenous elements (and a similar tone), Munga may have been hoping for something like a Congolese version of Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come. But Viva Riva lacks the cultural specificity of that work and strikes more universal tones that could equally apply to any Third World setting. Therefore, the film -- though enjoyable and involving enough on its own terms -- falls a bit short of its full potential.
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- Released: 2011
- Rating: R
- Review: Directed as a sophomore effort by Djo Tunda Wa Munga, the Belgian-French-Congolese co-production Viva Riva! is a tough, lean, gritty, and cunningly plotted adrenaline rush -- a lightning-paced gauntlet through the streets, homes, and back alleys of the Con… (more)