Crime along the Congo
‘Viva Riva!’’ has its cake and eats it, too. Shoots it to pieces, actually. The first film from the Democratic Republic of Congo to make it to these shores is a slick, propulsive crime drama whose influences include rap videos, the 1972 cult classic “The Harder They Come,’’ and every Warner Brothers gangster movie ever made. Writer-director Djo Tunda Wa Munga deplores the corruption, gunplay, and oversexed misogyny plaguing his country - and he’s going to show you as much of it as possible before the end credits roll.
Nothing new there. The history of entertainment is in large part a history of letting audiences vicariously revel in behavior they condemn on the drive home. It helps immeasurably, too, that the title character of “Viva Riva!’’ is a likable rascal - a country boy with the confidence and nerve to outfox the city slickers or die trying.
The movie takes place against a backdrop of near-complete governmental collapse. Gas shortages have brought the capital city of Kinshasa to a standstill; not even the crime lords can fill up their limousines. Riva (Patsha Bay) arrives in town with a truck full of fuel barrels hijacked from an Angolan gangster and immediately upends the balance of power.
Everyone wants a piece of him or his ill-gotten gas. The Angolan gangster, Cesar (Hoji Fortuna), arrives in-country wearing a crisp white suit and tailed by two thugs; he’s as creatively sadistic as any blaxploitation baddie but prefers to hire a lady army officer (Marlene Longange) to ferret out Riva. She becomes, next to the hero, the film’s most sympathetic figure, trying to negotiate a corrupt society with as little moral damage to herself as possible. It’s an impossible task and all the more poignant for it.
As the sharks circle, Riva readies his deal and tries to woo Nora (Manie Malone), the proud, secretly desolate moll of local crime kingpin Azor (Diplome Amekindra). The kid doesn’t stand a chance until, of course, he charms his way into her heart and gets her to open up about her privileged background. Her character makes no sense whatsoever, but the Ivory Coast-born Malone is a discovery: a cool beauty with real movie-star wattage.
The movie’s as violent as you’d expect but a lot more sexual; scenes of the army officer’s dalliance with her girlfriend and Riva’s seduction of Nora are filmed with the frankness of soft-core porn. Shot in vibrant colors that run together in the heat and goosed by the insistently sweet guitar pop known as soukous, “Viva Riva!’’ courses through a country where everyone’s a hustler. No one is untarnished - not the police chief who can be bought, the priest who sees Riva’s petrol as a source of charitable income, or Riva’s old friend J.M. (Alex Herabo), who dumps his wife and children as soon as he gets a taste of the criminal life.
In this upside-down landscape, the honorable ones are either those, like Riva, who cheerily admit their amorality or observers like a young boy who sees the damage done by greed and who the movie implies is the Congo’s only hope for the future. Until then, there are bad men to shoot and pliant women to bed.