Scanning the festival brochure VIVA RIVA! instantly leapt off the page at me. Not because I had heard anything about it, but all the ingredients seemed to be in place for a fresh new take on a classic formula from a part of the world I'd never seen anything from before. As it turned out, writer-director Djo Tunda Wa Munga's crime thriller had played at the Toronto International Film Festival last October and just last week pretty much swept the board at the 7th African Academy Awards, snatching up, among others, Best Picture and Best Director.
Set in modern day Kingshasa - capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo - gasoline is in short supply. Riva, wonderfully portrayed by Patsha Bay, is a playboy and a grifter who arrives in town with a truckload of gas he's recently swiped from a gang of Angolans. Riva appears to be a smart, well-connected and charismatic guy who could be on his way to the top if he can sell this stash, that is until he lays eyes on Nora (Manie Malone) - the drop dead gorgeous girlfriend of a local bandit - and determines to make her his own. Meanwhile, Cesar (Hoji Fortuna), the particularly nasty Angolan from whom Riva stole the gasoline, arrives in town and cuts a swathe through the Kingshasa underworld in his attempts to hunt Riva down.
To say that VIVA RIVA! is well-made considering its origins would be a monumental disservice to all involved - the film is slick, sexy and stylish by anybody's standards to the extent that it's almost inconceivable that what you are watching is a first-time director at work in a country that has produced nothing of this kind in its history. The film is a gripping piece of film noir, brimming with sex, violence, bloodshed and corruption. Our hero Riva is flawed yet likable, Nora is a bewitching femme fatale any red-blooded male would step over their dying grandmother just to get close to, the villains are genuinely frightening and the corrupt officials even more so. To top it off, the action takes place in the sweltering heat of Kingshasa - a city throbbing with newfound wealth yet still reeling from an eternity spent below the poverty line.
Ironically, the first time Riva sees Nora it is when she ducks out of a party to urinate in the bushes, only for it to become apparent she now resides in the upper echelons of Congolese society. VIVA RIVA! takes its audience through the squalor of the shanty towns into the mansions and nightclubs of the city's wealthy elite, helping us understand the diversity of the city, the gaping void between the haves and the have-nots and underpinning the thirst for money that drives all these characters to risk their lives.
The names Patsha Bay, Manie Malone and particularly Djo Tunda Wa Munga are now front and centre on my radar and whatever any of them set their sights on next is sure to be worth checking out. As far as I understand VIVA RIVA! is scheduled for a limited UK run in May 2011, and deserves to be picked up for North American distribution too, as its seductive combination of African mystique and hardboiled noir storytelling make for one seriously sexy crime flick.
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