Ambitious Riva (Patsha Mukuna Bay) returns to Kinshasa with a truck full of stolen gasoline in the middle of a drastic fuel shortage, intent on making money and becoming a player in his old home town. On his first night out, he starts to hit on Nora (Manie Malone) and makes an enemy of her boyfriend, local kingpin Azor (Diplome Amekindra). Meanwhile, nasty piece of work Cesar (Hoji Fortuna), the Angolan gangster whom Riva ripped off, has arrived in town with two heavies, intent on tracking him down. The stage is set for a series of confrontations in which Riva’s reckless pursuit of cash, status and pleasure puts him and everybody around him in the firing line.
Djo Tunda wa Munga’s Viva Riva! plays, for the most part, like a standard 70s blaxploitation gangster flick. The tough guys, molls, streetwise kids, the brothel keepers, priests and whores all seem to come from some discontinued stock character casting company. The dialogue is all on the nose. The theme, ‘money is like poison, in the end it always kills you’, isn’t soft-sold. And the story is one we’ve seen many times before. The fact that it’s Congolese is what makes Riva interesting; the familiar tale happens against unfamiliar politics, situations and settings. The cops, and any figures of authority, are largely absent, except as bribe-seeking irritants. The priest wants in on the stolen gas. Gangster Azor’s henchmen are washing a fleet of cars that can’t go anywhere, and he’s just as susceptible to sudden power cuts as the rest of his countrymen. The trappings that money gets you here are decidedly unspectacular; rising to the top doesn’t get you very far in Kinshasa, it seems. The casually murderous Cesar, with his loping stride and increasingly shabby white suit, provides a running commentary on what he thinks of the Congo: ‘What a country of niggers’; ‘What a cow pie of a country’; ‘You were better off colonised’.
There is pretty raunchy stuff, with stylised brothel scenes, whores wearing tribal mudmen masks, and an outrageous cunnilingus-through-a-barred-window moment. Everybody seems a few minutes and a couple of drinks away from shagging everybody else. And the sexual politics are intriguing. The female commandante (Marlene Longange), who is enlisted by Cesar to track Riva down, is revealed to be a lesbian with a no-nonsense hooker/informant girlfriend, and is one of the film’s most sympathetic and rounded characters. The mercurial Nora also shows herself to have more going on than your standard moll, fully aware she is making the most of a bad situation, and that the men around her are greedy, violent and short-sighted bastards, one and all.
The film has rough edges and dodgy performances, but also moments of cinematic flair and creative editing. The bits of old-school cheese (Cesar has a sinister musical motif that plays whenever he appears, for God’s sake) have to be weighed against little moments of insight and invention. It’s kind of refreshing, also, to see a film whose cast (Nora aside) probably wouldn’t make it as catwalk models: these are all real people on real streets. Viva Riva! has energy and pace, it’s a pretty creditable attempt at a Congolese The Harder They Come, a blaxploitation Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It’s fun.