Djo Munga takes a mere side-glance at the myriad issues concerning Congolese society, instead opting to make a popcorn flick, full of sex, violence and nefarious deeds.
Coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and hoping to spearhead a filmmaking renaissance there, crime thriller Viva Riva! immediately impresses with novelty, but soon hits on too many familiar genre conventions to stand out from the crowd.
After working as a low-level crook in Angola, Riva (Patsha Bay) makes off with a truckload of petrol, planning to siphon off his precious cargo in exchange for a small fortune in the bone-dry Congolese capital, Kinshasa. However, word of his deal causes a stir, with various parties, from crooked state officials to ambitious clergymen, wanting their cut – while Angolan gangster César (Hoji Fortuna) is in hot pursuit, aiming to claim both the petrol and Riva’s head.
For his first feature film, writer-director Djo Munga takes a mere side-glance at the myriad issues concerning Congolese society, instead opting to make a popcorn flick, full of sex, violence and nefarious deeds. It is unfortunate, as political tension – as glimpsed in César’s vitriolic judgement of Congolese character, "Maybe you should have remained colonised" – takes a backseat to a rather toothless exploration of sexuality.
From Riva’s initial blind lust, to his regular trips to the local brothel, sex is seen through an oppressively masculine gaze, with women often portrayed as sinful sex objects. Much of the film’s stylistic flair is buried in its many exaggerated sex scenes – one of which threatens to boil over into hazy, sweaty surrealism, as Riva finds himself enveloped in an orgy of women wearing tribal masks, and daubed in exotic body-paint.
In other hands, this insight into the aimless hedonism of young punks could be cutting, but the film doesn’t dig beneath Riva’s Jack-the-Lad charisma. These themes are soon forgotten, though, as the final third twists itself into bloody, convoluted chaos, pushing towards a conclusion that is as thrilling as it is predictable.
Whether Viva Riva!’s highly watchable, commendable, yet unavoidably conventional qualities will inspire a new wave of Congolese cinema is uncertain, but for world cinema veterans, at least, it offers the opportunity to cross off one more country from the list.
The attraction of the new.
The thrill of the chase.
The charm of the familiar.