Riva is an operator, a man with charm and ambition in equal measure. Kinshasa is an inviting place. With petrol in short supply in DRC's capital, he and his sidekick pursue a plot to get hold of a secret cache – barrels of fuel they can sell for a huge profit.
Although a tad over-reliant on B-thriller tropes, Djo Munga’s Viva Riva! has a compelling energy that overshadows its macho posturing and slavering adherence to sordid sex and violence. The film looks and feels like another Pulp Fiction clone at times, but what emerges is a far more thoughtful work that makes important (and surprisingly) salient points about the humanistic struggles of developing countries.
Set in the Democratic Republic of Congo capital Kinshasa, debutant writer/director Munga’s film pits the super cocky small-time crim Riva (Patsha Bay) against his former boss, ruthless Angolan gangster César (Hoji Fortuna). Hoping to score big and set up his own cartel, Riva steals several barrels of gasoline from César and seeks to unload them at an inflated price on the fuel-starved streets of his hometown. Hitting the clubs on his first night home, Riva falls for the glamourous Nora (Manie Malone), fiery moll of local badass Azor (Diplome Amekindra), and soon he’s fleeing both the jealous psychopath’s henchmen as well as César, who’s fast closing in on him.
Superficially, this bullets-and-babes opus merely proves that the Congolese film industry can crank out crime melodramas that could cut it in most film markets around the world. Of course, Viva Riva! achieves this on a comparably lean budget, but the film’s virtues don’t come from its competent aesthetic qualities, nor from its episodic plotting and reliance on nudity and point-blank bullet hits. (A particularly gruesome head shot represents one of many unpleasant moments.)
Viva Riva! finds its strongest footing in its examination of the social realities and racial tensions that exists in the DRC. Munga bolsters the depth of his characters with hot-button sociological factors: the class divide that exists within the Congolese population (Nora refuses to touch Riva, referring to him as a 'tribesman"; he equates her firm breasts with social standing, sick as he is of the 'saggy" tribes women); the brutal animosity between the DRC and Angola (César and his men refer to all Congolese as 'dirty niggers"); and the inherent corruption within the army and police forces of the Republic.
It’s these elements that lift Viva Riva! above conventional crime drama; one senses that Munga, coming from a documentary background, had far more on his mind than convincing international sales agents that his sexy, blood-splattered thriller would travel beyond its domestic audience. Backed by three charismatic lead performances and a vivid sense of atmosphere, the filmmaker has crafted a potent slice of social commentary within a shoot-'em-up setting.