Review: ‘Viva Riva!’ is Sweaty, Sexy and Dangerous

By  · Published on June 10th, 2011

It’s been widely noted that Djo Tunda Wa Munga’s Viva Riva! is the first film to come out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in more than two decades. Yet that fact, however noteworthy, makes the picture sound like more of an esoteric curiosity than a complete, polished cinematic effort.

It belies the tight scripting, expert pacing and consistently sharp production values that characterize the film from the European-educated, Congolese Munga. Part African noir and part concise summation of busy, heady life in modern-day Kinshasa, it is at once a timeless gangster/man on the run story and a specific portrait of a chaotic milieu grappling with an age of profound instability.

With the ease of a man convinced of his own invincibility, hustler Riva (Patsha Bay) struts through the DRC’s capital after stealing barrels of valuable gasoline from Angolan crime lord Cesar (Hoji Fortuna). Fuel is in short supply and Riva knows it, so he pushes on even as the ruthless Cesar arrives in Kinshasa to reclaim the property and wreak vengeful havoc for the theft.

Relentlessly hitting on the mistress of a different crime lord, partying on the city’s hopping nightlife circuit, bonding with an old friend – Riva does it all. Munda keeps up with his hedonistic protagonist with pulsating, mobile camerawork and all manners of erotically-tinged imagery. With a heated schema that alternates between torch-lit settings dripping with sex and sweat and sequences composed of violence rendered in stark, unflinching close-ups, the film portrays a world that’s both exciting and dangerous.

It’s the sort of over-stimulated place that’s perfect for a man like Riva, who thrives on the thrills of being chased and acting out. With a big, friendly smile and ample attitude, he’s used to getting his way and refuses to relent until he does. He’s the sort of flawed yet lovable character that should be inhabited by an actor adept at straddling that proverbial line between charisma and insufferableness. As played by first-time actor Bay, Riva is all that and more – he’s Munda’s Kinshasa in human form.

The movie is absolutely rooted in Munda’s perception of the hot-headed, uncertain condition of life in post-Zaire Kinshasa, a city of more than 10 million grappling with a nascent western capitalist influence, continuing armed strife and profound political instability that still threatens the country.

Viva Riva! is, however, resolutely a genre picture, one that offers a distinctly African slant on the tropes of blaxploitation and the spaghetti western. If you’re in search of earnest social commentary about life in the DRC you won’t find it here. If you’re after sleek, fast-paced entertainment set against a volatile world you’ve never seen before, you can’t do better.

The Upside: This is a polished, thoroughly engaging crime flick that unfolds in a world we haven’t seen on film before.

The Downside: Sometimes Munda’s hyperactive approach can be a bit overbearing.

On the Side: The film has been very well-received, winning six African Movie Awards and Best African Movie at the recent MTV Movie Awards, among other accolades.