Director: Djo Tunda Wa Munga
Writer: Djo Munga
Starring: Patsha Bay, Manie Malone, Hoji Fortuna, Marlene Longange
Producer: Djo Munga
Country: Democratic Republic of the Congo, France & Belgium
Running Time: 94 min
BBFC Certification: 15
Viva Riva! has been hyped as spearheading a new wave of African cinema and is the first film from the Democratic Republic of Congo to receive U.S. distribution. Unfortunately, in my eyes at least, it’s not a great start.
Viva Riva! tells the story of Riva (Patsha Bay), a small time criminal who pulls off a big job, getting his hands on a truckload of fuel, which is gold dust in a state where it is running scarce. When he starts flashing his cash and throwing his weight around, muscling in on the local crime boss’ territory and trying to steal his girl he gets into a heap of trouble. Added to this, Cesar, an evil foreigner, is on the hunt for Riva and leaves a trail of torture and murder behind him as he draws ever closer. A local military officer and even the church get involved too along the way.
It clearly wants to be the next City of God or Mean Streets, but totally misses the mark in a number of ways. For one, it’s style, although colourful and slick, lacks the character or vibrancy of something like City of God. Also, despite it’s violence, sex and brief running time, it still doesn’t have the energy it needs to make for a truly exciting experience. Instead of using bold filmmaking techniques to grab your attention it just throws as much graphic sex and violence as it can at the screen in an attempt to be edgy. All it did for me was make me feel dirty watching it. There’s so much unnecessary sex in there I was turning the volume down after a while so my housemates didn’t think I was watching a porno.
All of the sleaze on display would be fine in a fun exploitation film, but this is pretty unpleasant viewing and often pushes to be something more. It’s not heavy on politics by any means, but the state of the nation is certainly focused on in it’s presentation of DRC’s lack of fuel, electricity shortages, unsanitary prison conditions and the corruption of it’s government, military and even it’s religious leaders. This and the way in which the criminals take advantage of DRC’s problems is powerful in itself, but the film never really delves deep enough to get to the heart of the matter, plus with the trashiness of the story that frames these politics, it’s hard to take it seriously.
It’s the writing that really makes the film suffer though. The plot is incredibly derivative, despite the fresh setting. As soon as the film opens you can see where it’s going and the journey rarely throws up any surprises. The corruption of money and power has been done far better on numerous occasions. Plus, in jumping straight into Riva getting his hands on the goods and flaunting his wealth soon after, it leaves little time for development of any kind. There’s not much of an arc here, we just seem to wait for everyone to catch up to Riva, then watch him get away in increasingly idiotic ways. There aren’t really any relateable characters either. Riva’s friend comes close as he seems to be a lot more grounded and doesn’t want to get involved at first, but he doesn’t take much convincing and his relationship with his wife barely registers in the film among all the sex and violence.
It’s a shame, because there is clearly a lot of talent involved and it is great to see a state with so many political and financial issues producing a film of such a technical high standard and getting it shown globally to relative success. I just wish the filmmakers would spend a bit more time at the planning and writing stage to produce a film with more substance or originality.
The film is released in the UK on DVD on 17th October by Metrodome Distribution. The DVD contains no extra features, but the picture and sound quality is decent.
The trailer for Viva Riva: