Friday, 1 July 2011

VIVA RIVA: They Fall Harder in Kinshasa

The Congolese gangster film Viva Riva won six awards, including best picture, at this year's African Academy Awards, a triumph of sorts for what is, unabashedly, a genre picture, and a very knowing one at that. Although it has been compared to City Of God for its raw portrayal of low life in Kinshasa, there is much in this film that will be familiar to devotees both of classic gangster movies and blaxploitation filcks. Director Djo Tunda Wa Munga was educated and went to film school in Belgium, and he and screenwriter Steven Markowitz show their grounding in the classics of the genre, both good and bad. What is surprising is the energy which Munga brings to the film, and the frank honesty with which he presents his protagonist Riva, always engaging if not always admirable.

Riva (played with great enthusiasm by Patsha Bay Mtune) is a small time criminal who rips off a tanker full of gas from his Angolan boss, Cesar, intending to make a killing on the Kinshasa black market. He returns to his hometown, Mariano, and with his best friend in tow hits the Kinshasa night spots, immediately falling for Nora, moll of local big man and hard guy Azol. From this point it is a question of who will catch up to Riva first, whether he will get the payday or the girl, and whether he will survive. All fairly predictable, and laid out in patterns familiar from the Thirties and the Seventies,and shot with that dirty grainy look of 70s B movies. One line, 'Kinshasa la belle, Kinshasa la pourbelle,' (Kinshasa the beautiful, Kinshasa the garbage) might well be the movie's motto, and the look of the film, alternatively seductive and grotesque, reflects that brilliantly.

But two factors lift Viva Riva above its roots. One is the portrayal of Kinshasa la pourbelle as a capital where virtually everyone in authority is corrupt and for sale: politicans, military, police, and even priests. It's a world of organised chaos, in which only someone trying to work the angles appears to be able to get ahead. It's interesting to see the contempt the Angolans have for their Congolese neighbours, and to read the subtleties as the languages switch from Lingala to French to Portugese.

The other factor is Mtune's performance as Riva, which gives the film its hard-edged realism, as well as its pace and humour. Munga never sugarcoats Riva, whose passion for Nora doesn't stop him heading for the local whorehouses as soon as he has the money, nor does it stop his friend Jim from abandoning his own wife and kids for the chance to go with him. Nora herself, played with great dignity by the exquisite Manie Malone, understands her place in the high-priced but violent world she's chosen, and her relationship with Riva is, in effect, the film's biggest challenge to the world-view it presents so well. There is a danger in all this; although Munga would argue he is showing Congolese society as it exists, his camera does linger on the film's sex scenes, pushing us, the audience into Riva's point of view, and that can easily be misinterpreted.

Occasionally, Munga overdoes it, as with Cesar (whose name of course recalls classic gangster flicks just as his wardrobe is straight out of 70s movie Harlem, and who is played with great relish by Diplome Amekindra) but this is always leavened by the less stylised progression of Riva's flight, by the local 'commandant' and the lesbian hooker/informer who is her lover, and, it should be said, by large doses of humour, some of it fiercely black (no puns intended). Riva's 'rescue' of Nora from Azol's fortress is played for slapstick comedy, even as their lives are at stake. And when, at one point Cesar tells his men, who've already cut a bloody swath through Kinshasa, 'we have to be more ruthless, it drew laughter from the preview audience watching the film with me. This, to me, is a sure sign of the kind of movie Viva Riva is celebrating, as well as the kind of movie it is. But most impressively, when it comes to a veritable inferno of a violent climax which threatens to go over the top, Munga again balances the impact with an ending that is ironically both touching and chilling.

In this sense of relentless inevitability, of momentary joy in the face of impending doom, of faith in the power of the big score to liberate, when in reality all it does, and is expected to do, is provide a good time, Viva Riva reminds me less of its gangster antecedents, and more of an African The Harder They Come, with just as flawed but appealling a hero trying to survive and beat a system designed to spit out dozens like him everyt day. It's more polished, but it has all the energy of that film, and is even more entertaining. See it.


DIAKONDO said...

i wish to see it im sure its a good movie. i feel so proud to be congolease. from me its a first movie to won so many aword. thanks to a produser to put his energy in this movie.

Anonymous said...

Man im African American. I saw this on netflicks. Loved it!