African cinema is hitting its stride and heading north from the Johannesburg ghettos of Tsotsi (2005) and District 9 (2009) to the post-war streets of Congo’s capital Kinshasa. Director Djo Munga’s debut Viva Riva! (2010) is an overblown, violent drama which suffers from having an unsympathetic protagonist, but succeeds in its portrayal of a damaged country run by hoodlums and racked by corruption.
Riva (Patsha Mukana) returns to Kinshasa after ten years in Angola with a truck full of stolen fuel that he liberated from a bunch of trigger-happy gangsters. Fuel is a precious commodity in the capital, and Riva spends his ill-gotten gains on wine, women and song, but when he spies the local mobster’s moll Nora (Manie Malone) he falls head-over-heels. The course of true love doesn’t run smoothly however, and not only does the mobster not appreciate Riva running off with his missus, but the Angolan gangsters roll up in town to get their fuel drums and take revenge on our hero.
Although Riva has his charms and Mukana does a fine job in playing the cool playboy, it’s difficult to root for him. He gives money to a street kid and a wad of notes to his ageing parents, but at heart he’s a selfish, single-minded fool who seems intent on causing trouble just for the hell of it. This is fine on one level at it shows that everyone in Kinshasa is on the take and out for themselves, but Munga wants us to feel for the impulsive Riva.
The city itself is the real hero of Viva Riva! – the dance clubs, whorehouses, warehouses and hotel rooms of Kinshasa. The fusion of tribalism and modernity, of colonial Africa and the years of war and mass murder that followed have created a strange, battered but frequently beautiful urban landscape. These are some mean streets indeed and torture, killing and blackmail are part of everyday life. All the locations and background actors seem completely genuine, and credit for that has to go to the director.
All in all, Viva Riva! is a pretty solid, but very forgettable effort – you’ll enjoy the ride, but by the time the end arrives you’ll probably be suffering from chronic indifference. Still. If Viva Riva! is a taste of what we can expect from Congolese cinema, then a gem will surely emerge sometime in the future.