Viva Riva!

Viva Riva!

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Congolese filmmaker Djo Tunda Wa Munga's explosive d├ębut feature has been unfairly compared to the films of Tony Scott. It's much better. With fast paced action, unflinching brutality, not a hint of soft focus apologism, a complex plot and convincing three dimensional characters, it's one of the most exciting contributions to the genre for years.

Patsha Bay Mukana is Riva, an easy-going young man with an infectious grin and a tendency to desire most whatever it is he cannot have. Watching his early adventures, one wonders that he's still alive, but it soon becomes apparent that he's also quick witted and fast on his feet. He's recently spent some time in Angola and has returned with a truck full of fuel oil which he's hidden away in a warehouse whilst his sales agent waits for the price to rise. Here in teeming Kinshasa we're in present day Mad Max territory. Fuel is desperately scarce. Even Nora, the beautiful wife of the local mob boss, is told she'll have to limit her shopping trips. Riva looks set to make a killing - but there are vicious Angolan gangsters on his trail.

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This isn't a situation in which to go looking for trouble, yet Riva's ability to dig himself a deeper hole is entirely convincing. He's motivated largely by a simple desire to have fun which the audience will find easy to engage with. He seems like a nice guy, friendly to everyone he meets, and if there are weaknesses to his character - his fondness for sex workers, his lack of consideration for his best friend's wife when taking said friend out on the pull - then they seem to be the product of a curious innocence, the reasons for which are themselves explored - though never heavy-handedly - in the course of what follows. Manie Malone is devastatingly sexy as Nora and initial disinterest only makes her more compelling. The stage is set for passionate sex, vicious violence and a series of twists and turns that will leave your heart pounding.

All this would be entertaining enough on its own, capably directed as it is, but there's more below the surface. Minor characters are beautifully drawn so that we really get to know and care about them. In particular, the female characters show a depth and complexity rarely seen in the genre, which is important, because casual misogyny is one more cause of escalating tension - there is always the feeling that, sooner or later, one of these women is going to snap. Nora comes across as a real person with strong sexual urges of her own and the sex she enjoys challenges Western ideas about African masculinity. Two lesbian characters, very different from each other, prove to be every bit as capable (and as vulnerable) as the men. Among the latter there are weak characters, fragile egos, everybody wanting a piece of the going deal - and there is also ruthlessness, with the psychopathic Angolan boss dishing out violence that may well make hardened genre fans want to close their eyes. There's an intense realism about the whole thing that brings it much closer to home.

Kinshasa itself is also very much a character here. The racism of the Angolans (returned by a customs official), the legacies of colonialism and of the civil war, the strain of poverty, all provide rich background to the story. We only meet Riva's parents once but it's enough to reveal the depths of their pain, their country's pain. Riva is not the only character to reveal a troubled family background. The film's few tender moments emerge when he begins to recognise this in others. This is a story about broken people abusing other broken people in an attempt to survive just as it is a film about the ambition that may, for all the trouble that goes with it, be what is needed to create a better future. By structuring itself against these real world problems, Viva Riva! eschews escapism and delivers something much more potent - yet it does so with style.

Sexy, energetic, fierce and authentic, Viva Riva! will take some beating in the action stakes this year. Catch it if you can.

Reviewed on: 19 Feb 2011
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A Kinshasa hustler hatches a scheme to steal a lucrative stash of petrol, but his lust for the wife of a notorious crime boss might bring more trouble than he's prepared for.
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Director: Djo Tunda Wa Munga

Writer: Djo Tunda Wa Munga

Starring: Patsha Bay, Manie Malone, Hoji Fortuna, Diplome Amekindra

Year: 2010

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: Democratic Republic Of The Congo


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