Viva Riva!: More Than Just the Best Congolese Film of All Time

06/08/2011 4:00 AM |

Viva Riva!
Directed by Djo Tunda Wa Munga

The fact that one of the most vivid, ambitious cinematic offerings of 2011 comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo—a country that never had an indigenous film industry and hasn’t had a movie theater in at least a dozen years––should inspire more filmmakers than any self-congratulatory tale that Tarantino or Rodriguez ever spun.

A viciously tragic spin on the traditional trickster narrative, writer-director-producer Djo Tunda Wa Munga’s Viva Riva! adopts Nollywood’s bombastic swagger and preoccupation with everyday problems from corruption to power outages, but without its typically slack acting or evangelical denouements. Riva (Patsha Bay) returns home to the DRC after ten years in Angola, pockets fat with cash he got from stealing a barge of crude in the midst of a nationwide fuel shortage. During his multi-evening homecoming party, he sets his sights on the one prize that could possibly top his last conquest: the impossibly sensual Nora (Manie Malone), kept woman of gangster kingpin Azor (Diplome Amekindra). But while Riva’s busy thinking with his dick, club-hoping and antagonizing Nora with his macho romantic overtures, a much more sinister threat to his livelihood is pursuing him: the mercurial Angolan gangster Cesar (Hoji Fortuna) and his cronies, who Riva ripped off. With the Commander, a blackmailed Congolese lesbian, as their guide, the gangsters mercilessly burn, beat and shotgun their way back to Cesar’s oil.

The ease with which brutality comes to most of the characters—with the notable exception of the Commander––speaks to the DRC’s continued reality of roving militias. During one interrogation, the owners of a roadside cafe turn up the radio as a trucker is beaten to death by Cesar’s men, but are still horrified by what they’re witnessing. Similarly, the freedom with which xenophobia flows cynically belies the myth of pan-Africanism: despite wearing a diamond-encrusted medallion in the shape of the continent, one of Cesar’s cronies routinely slurs the DRC, as does Cesar himself: “Your country is the worst shit pile I’ve ever seen. Maybe you should’ve stayed colonized.” (This comes after he’s been stripped and imprisoned in a flea-bitten cell by local police, simply for being Angolan.)

But as a counterpoint to all this violence is something rarely glimpsed in African film, past or present: sexuality. Bouncing waistbeads are unapologetically on display, shown without any sense of leering voyeurism; Munga’s camera hints at scent and touch, a rarity in any language. From the Commander’s prostitute-lover to nightclub gyrations to cunnilingus through a window grate (absurd, yes, but a turning point in Nora’s feelings for Riva), it’s sensual panoply that’s just as affecting and genuine as the violence. When’s the last time you saw oral, not as a joke or merely hinted at, in Hollywood?

Opens June 10