Viva Riva! Dir. Djo Tunda Wa Munga

[Music Box Films; 2011]

Styles: crime drama, gangster
Others: Johnny Mad Dog, City of God

In Viva Riva!, director Djo Tunda Wa Munga transforms the American gangster movie genre into a metaphor for the plague of civil war in Central Africa. The first feature film produced in the Democratic Republic of Congo, apart from colonial and missionary endeavors, Viva Riva! employs the classic motif of a young criminal in love with a more established boss’ flashy girlfriend. Having just heisted a fortune in gasoline, Riva (Patsha Bay) returns to his hometown of Kinshasa after 10 years. In this gas-starved city, he is poised to become a king. He seeks out his childhood friend J.M. (Alex Herabo), and the two hit the town with Riva’s cash in search of the kind of thrills they had never imagined possible. When Riva meets Nora (Manie Malone), nothing will stop him in his romantic pursuit, not even her co-habitation with the Kinshasan kingpin Azor (Diplome Amekindra). Little does he suspect that vicious Angolan mobster Cesar (Hoji Fortuna) has blackmailed a lesbian army Commandante (Marlene Longange) into tracking down Riva.

If not for the film’s allegorical finale, it might be tempting to view Viva Riva! as little more than an imported B-movie. On the surface, there are elements that certainly seem to glamorize sex, money, and power, while at the same time providing a healthy dose of sensationalist excitement. However, taking a cue from his film’s predecessors in the gangster genre, Munga ultimately does impose a moral code on his characters. If the message of films like The Public Enemy and Little Caesar always boiled down to “crime doesn’t pay,” Munga’s film expands the message to the underlying cause, the desire to possess, which corrupts and destroys not just the criminals of the film (Cesar, Azor, and Riva), but the society as a whole, including the Commandante, a family man like J.M., and even the priest who runs a sanctuary. As the disparate elements get drawn in and begin to turn on one another in relentless pursuit of the petroleum fortune, Munga provides a microcosmic vision of how his country has been torn apart for years.

The possession is not limited simply to money (although there is a bit of sermonizing on this point), but to things in general. Although the gas fortune that Riva has will bring him money, it sets him up in a position of power because of its value as a commodity. Azor has wealth and influence, yet at the same time even he cannot wield these fully without the “thing” that his enemy Riva controls. Yet Munga eschews even the justification for those who want the gas, which is literally the fuel that runs a functioning modern society. In perhaps the most poignant sequence, the power in the city goes off at night, and within moments, candles are lit, drums are being played, and a communal celebration is in full effect. At the same time, Azor possesses the “thing” that Riva desires, Nora. When Riva describes Nora, he refers to her “red hair” as striking to him, because it gives her uniqueness above all the other women he could know and have. Riva’s moment of recognition begins when he realizes that he and all the other men in Nora’s life have viewed her as something to be owned. He gives her money so that she can be free, rather than being forced to use her body as a currency for shelter and protection. This is the first step to his symbolic redemption through sacrifice (no spoilers here, but the allegory is pretty clear).

If anything, Munga could have pushed his debut film to the next level had he cared less about coherence. He feels the need to let no plot stone go unturned, and as such, the film gets bogged down in connecting all the narrative threads. In describing the film as Congolese New Wave, he certainly seems to be taking a page out of the Godardian playbook by reworking the gangster genre. But as Munga (and hopefully others) forges an identity for Congolese cinema, he should not feel beholden to the conventions set by Hollywood cinema, but instead expand the elements that interest them not just to a new setting, but to a new aesthetic as well.

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