(On the event of the Region 1 DVD release of "Viva Riva!", I present my belated review of the theatrical release.)
Hailing from the District of Congo is "Viva Riva!", an unflinchingly violent gangster/crime film. One part De Palma's "Scarface", one part Jamaica's 1972 "The Harder They Come", another part gritty social expose, "Viva Riva!", in all its on-location squalor and edgy cinematography, bears the pervasive sleaziness of a classic blaxploitation crime film, but none of the soulfulness.
Just as Jamaica's board of tourism once condemned "The Harder They Come" for it's unfavorable but brutally honest view of its home country, so too must the DR of Congo's officials be wringing their hands over this one. When the country isn't presented as a cesspool of crime and depravity, it's seen as a hive of terminal poverty and social crisis. No individual or institution is uncorrupted. The country is out of fuel. Useless motor vehicles litter the roadsides. Random rolling power outages are epidemic. Crime of all shape and size is the way of life. A lair of outright grime covers everything. If this is in any way an accurate portrayal of life in DR of Congo, then it is somehow to the filmmakers' depraved credit that they've figured out a way to present their hell on earth as a plausible backdrop for the kind of bloody, sexy crime tale that we in the west eat up with voyeuristic abandon.
Our protagonist Riva (Patsha Bay) is a young man who shows up in town with a simple plot to cash in a stash of stolen fuel barrels. A slick and intimidating crime lord, Cesar, (Hoji Fortuna) gets involved, as does the smaller-time adversary Azor (Diplome Amekindra), and his steamy girl, Nora (Manie Malone). Also in the mix are corrupt law enforcement personal, sideways church officials, and an assortment of other menacing gun-totters. Between the unforgettable ruthless presence of Cesar and the lusty distraction of Nora (who's window-hanging sex scene is as strangely charged as it is outright weird), is it any wonder that Riva's wide-eyed rookie scheme lurches along before the inevitable bloodbath?
The uneasy combination of social issues and exploitation elements is nothing new in cinema (blaxploitation had perfected it before I was born), but when the whole notion is transposed to the District of Congo and stocked with non-actors amid a never-ending cesspool of degenerate visions, the intended cool roughness of the piece becomes an uncomfortable confrontation. How much of that confrontation sensation is intended by first time writer/director Djo Munga, it's simply hard to tell. Munga clearly wants to show us that things are very wrong in the DR of Congo - and he most certainly does. But that he does so by shakily embracing shopworn cliches, amped-up bleakness and uneven pacing is something that remains hard to reconcile. "Viva Riva!" in some ways plays less like a crime film, and more like an angry call for attention.
- Jim Tudor
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