At the New Zealand International Film Festival: Gangsters and floozies in the Congolese Republic.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has so much mineral wealth, that like Australia, you’d have expected it to be perfectly placed during the recent commodity boom. The Congo, however, has been anything but a lucky country. Subjected to one of the worst colonial regimes and genocides in history under the Belgians and Leopold II (when one of the Angolans suggests in the film that Congo would be better off under colonial rule, it’s a pretty ruthless statement); subject to both Cold War and contemporary exploitation of its minerals; dictators who helped coin the term ‘kleptocracy’; and some of the bloodiest conflicts in recent times, it’s fair to say that Congo has struggled. Viva Riva! takes its starting point from this mineral wealth, but in one of its many ironies, the Kinshasa of the film struggles from a lack of mineral wealth—in this case, a petrol shortage.
Viva Riva! is a gangster film through and through, but one so heavily inflected by social commentary, that it’s impossible to read it simply as a genre film. The corruption, the selfishness, and the conflict convincingly shape the film’s characters, and make them much more three-dimensional than one would have anticipated. Its narrative is compelling enough for those simply interested in a good time: Riva (Patsha Bay Mukuna) has just returned from neighbouring Angola and grabs a shipment of gas. He starts by selling it off in gas-starved Kinshasa and earning a cult reputation for his nihilistic lifestyle, yet earns the wrath of his former boss in Angola (from whom the gas comes from) and a local mobster whose girlfriend (Manie Malone) he’s pursuing.
The city is the star of the film. Although director Djo Tunda Wa Munga presents Kinshasa as a dystopia, almost straight out of a sci-fi film, the city itself is intoxicating—you can almost sense Riva’s pleasure at being back in town—and seems to foster limitless possibilities and dangers. And the dangers are plenty: Munga doesn’t hide from showing a decent amount of violence and sex. All in all, it’s a very well-made genre film, one which executes its action sequences perfectly, has the right amount of silliness, muddies the good vs. evil perfectly, and has energy right from the outset.
But it’s much more than that. While the film’s political statements aren’t particularly subtle, the over-the-top approach to genre allows Munga to easily get away with it. There are enough allusions to racism, trauma (a well-judged scene involving Riva’s parents), corruption, and solipsism to add a much denser layer to the action. It also suggests that Riva is the only person who can thrive in such a society—but even then, it’s hardly the most stable foundation to make a living. Viva Riva! is a thrilling ride, one that’s also grounded in an intriguing and sobering subtext, allowing it to become a deserved box office hit back home.