New In Theaters – Review Of “Viva Riva” (A Pulsating Look At A Post-War City)

by Tambay A. Obenson
June 10, 2011 4:34 AM
3 Comments
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It opens in limited release today, specifically in New York and Los Angeles. I saw it earlier this year, and reviewed it back then. I figured I'd share my review again, since it's opening weekend. Also, worth noting, I interviewed director Djo Tunda Wa Munga a little bit ago; you can read that interview HERE if you haven't seen it.

Writer/director Djo Tunda Wa Munga said that one of his motivations in making Viva Riva was to counter some of the long-standing, dominant perceptions of Africa and African art.

I’d say he accomplishes this goal, with a film that unabashedly depicts the kind of orchestrated sexuality and violence rarely seen in African cinema (specifically in the Democratic Republic Of The CongoDRC – where such scenes are taboo); though there must be something to be said for being so audacious with this kind of carnage and salacity, in a country still recovering from a war that killed millions of people, and saw women subjected to worst kind of sexual violation.

The film weaves these often graphic sequences into a familiar, though well-executed narrative, producing an end product that’s nothing short of a visceral thrill! It screams its welcome, and dares you to ignore it, flush with a confidence and all around deftness that this writer mostly reveled in.

Call it Congolese “new wave” if you will, maybe an oversimplified moniker that contemporary film critics (American mostly) seem to attach to every realized trend in cinema, particularly if it exists in countries with a dormant cinema history – dormant often meaning that they’ve previously been mostly ignored by the international (read Western) film community.

And despite the fact that Congo-Kinshasans have lived through a myriad of spirit-crushing experiences – recent wars that devastated the country, severe crime, extreme poverty (even though the country is sitting on billions of dollars in coveted natural resources), corruption under a dictatorship, energy shortages, and more – the film, made in a collective spirit, by the community in which it is set, wears very little of those well-documented aspects of life in the country on its sleeve; its filmmaker was clearly determined to make a film that was “resolutely modern” and forward-looking even, though still self-reflective, fearlessly and shamelessly confronting those taboo issues the people know exist, but don’t talk about publicly.

The plot is rather simple, and straightforward, at least on its surface… Riva is a small time hustler who, after 10 years away in neighboring Angola, returns to his hometown of Kinshasa (a town literally out of gas) with a major score: a fortune in hijacked gasoline, and a wallet overflowing with bills, intent on living the kind of royal lifestyle only kings can afford – a dream held by many of his ilk, with the weight of oppression and stagnation on their backs, disillusioned, fed up and frustrated with the lot life has dealt them, resolving to do what they deem necessary for their own survival, and that of others of significance to them.

On the menu: food feasts, drinks, clubs, women, endless days of hedonism, and more.

The only problem here is that the sadistic Angolan crime lord who Riva stole the gasoline from wants his booty back, and follows Riva to Congo-Kinshasa to collect, accompanied by his 2 bullish goons, wreaking bloody, deadly havoc every step of the way on their path, in search for the man who relieved them of their mineral riches, aka Riva.

And, oh by the way, as word spreads of the bounty on Riva’s head, others are overcome with greed, and decide to make a play for the gasoline themselves, including Viva’s best friend, as well as an army commander (who happens to be lesbian), a local priest, and a feared gangster whose kept, though miserable trophy girlfriend falls for Riva after he relentlessly, and quite boldly pursues her, despite knowing of the wealthy thug who keeps her on a short leash.

Each of these seemingly divergent paths eventually cross, all ending, at varying moments, on Viva’s heels, leading to a final bloody and fiery showdown that ends exactly how it needed to.

Let’s just say, karma is a bitch, and everyone gets what’s coming to them, good or bad. Some go out in a whimper; some with a bang; others in a blaze of glory.

That there are no acting schools and not much of a film industry to speak of in Congo-Kinshasa is worth noting here, as the performances (from men and women literally culled from the streets of Kinshasa, who were later work-shopped in months of acting sessions) are often quite natural, mostly believable and engaging. Especially its star Patsha Bay Mukuna (Riva) whose reckless, devil-may-care performance looks and feels rather effortless.

But despite the attempts at verisimilitude on the Brussels-trained filmmaker’s part (following a history of African filmmakers trained outside of Africa, or under the tutelage of none Africans, and then appropriating the technology and film language to make movies that reflect rooted sensibilities), this is still cinema we’re talking about, essentially a reinvented version of what’s real, with one of its primary goals being to entertain. And entertain it most certainly does. In fact, comparisons to Quentin Tarantino are probable, given that films made since his seminal 1994 film Pulp Fiction, that are resolutely violent, sexual, with an ensemble cast of characters in multiple plot-lines, are often labeled “Tarantino-esque.”

And it’s because of that potential comparison, along with consideration for the filmmaker’s “outsider” training, and his intent to make a “modern” film that some might question his gaze. But I would question the questions, and wonder if those critical of the film’s style and substance as being devoid of an African aesthetic (whatever that really means) have become so comfortable with the aforementioned extreme, limited depictions of Africa and Africans in Africa, that any deviation from what’s considered the “norm,” rings false.

In his defense, filmmaker Djo Tunda Wa Munga, born and raised in Kinshasa, has vocally and artistically made a commitment to building up the film business in the DRC, which is virtually non-existent, with really no movie theaters in the city, despite being the capital. And I suppose making commercially viable films that will play in international markets seems to be his approach, for better or worse.

Shot on 35mm film, and likely with a “real” budget, it’s a technically-sound, well produced and directed piece of cinema that will hold its own in any circle. The condescending eye with which we here in the states often view African films will be challenged, which speaks to director Munga’s intent to create a film that erases the long-standing, dominant perceptions of Africa and more specifically, African cinema/art.

An endless dissection of the film is possible, given all the ideas and issues I’ve introduced here, but I’ll save that for when others have seen it, and, in a proper forum, a longer, fuller discussion can be had. Also, as I’m still educating myself on what we broadly label African cinema, I’m not yet equipped to adequately contextualize the film. This is the first work by Wa Munga I’ve seen, even though his resume lists some 4 or 5 previous titles. Needless to say, I’ll be seeking those out.

Viva Riva
is a 96-minute pulsating look at a few lives in a post-war city, in a seemingly endless struggle for independence and the establishment of stable, peaceful living conditions.

Again, my interview with the director, Djo, can be found HERE.

Trailer below:

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3 Comments

  • James Madison | June 11, 2011 7:22 AMReply

    I saw Viva Riva yesterday. Great thriller. It was definitely a movie that melded African and western sensibilities. (More so of a certain "type" that I will get into later in my comments.)

    Director/writer Djo Munga is a skilled artist. Great at capturing suspense and lighthearted moment within his film. The sequences are smooth and graceful and does not feel forced. You can tell he is a student of film by his attention to theme, pacing. look, and intensity of Viva Riva.

    The characters are different in personality and feel and well established.

    All the actors...all of them did an excellent job. Stand outs are Patsha Bay, Manie Malone and Hoji Fortuna (who was at the 7:45 show. Cool guy!) I liked the boy who was the peddler, although I cannot remember his name.

    Some of my constructive criticism comes in regards to the sexual nature.

    I'm not at all squeamish about sex iin film, but as Tambay wrote in his post that Djo Tunda Wa Munga wanted to " counter some of the long-standing, dominant perceptions of Africa and African art."

    I think the talks of sex and acts of sex (some of them) plays into a "type" that has been the bane of people of African descent/people of color. The savage beast that cannot control his/her sexual drive.

    Some acts I believe, could have been suggested, even though I know film is a show don't tell medium, but I feel that some will continue their perceptions of African (whether in the States, Africa or the southern hemisphere) as over sexed.

    Again no problems with sex and especially not the scenes of Riva and Nora (the window scene was great!) but I think in regards to sex some people will indulge in or continue to indulge in those beliefs. And I do believe that African sexuality SHOULD be shown. It is a conflicting issue, in regards to how we are perceived so I guess, as I write this, it should be shown..in all forms..aggressive and subtle. As long as diverse images of us are seen.

    My other criticism, which is the lead into part of the western themed sensibility of the film, is the aesthetic of beauty, in the casting of Manie Malone as the "desired lady" in the movie.

    I was curious, that with the movie being filmed in DRC, that an actor with darker skin could not have gotten the role.

    Manie Malone is without a doubt beautiful, talented and excellent in her role, (and although not as melanin enhanced as the average woman in DRC, does possesses strong/obvious African features) and as Djo put it the Femme Fatale.

    He stated that racism/caste systems are in place in Africa, and I wondered was that a factor in his decision to go with casting a woman like Manie. To explore that caste system, or was the part written, unconsciously or consciously with a western aesthetic of beauty.

    Djo's response was that he was concerned of not being able to find an actress to play the role in a certain way I.E. Femme Fatale because they have a certain look and vibe and when Manie came along she had that "Femme Fatale" vibe more so than any other actor in casting.

    In my opinion she was perfect for the role, I am just hoping as Djo stated, he truly casted her more for her vibe and acting ability rather than her "look". I would have loved to see a darker skinned woman represented as the Femme Fatale but I was impressed with Manie.

    Overall this was a great film and can knock a lot of western themed films out of the box. I don't get a sense that Djo is in it for the glitz of it all. He comes off as being an artist and caring about his craft rather than person who thinks "money" then way down the line "art".

    Another shout out to the acting skills of Hoji Fortuna. He was in the audience and his vibe was such an antithesis to the menace of his character Cesar, you know there is great talent there.

    Viva Riva is a great first feature by Djo Munga and I highly recommend it.

  • Kia | June 10, 2011 10:15 AMReply

    Saw this today... I thoroughly enjoyed it and I'm not a huge fan of action or crime films. The only weak spot was the explosion with Riva's parents. For some reason that part slowed the action a bit, but other than that I give it 3 1/2 stars!

  • Neziah | June 10, 2011 8:01 AMReply

    I'm definitely looking forward to seeing it. I've been a huge fan of African cinema for a very long time now, from Ousmane Sembene to Souleymane Cissé.

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