Everyone (who has friends) has a friend like Riva. People never really seem to give a shit, always speak their minds and don’t bow to authority. They’re mostly loudmouths and whose actions border on destructive narcissism. In a lot of stages of the film, you realize that if Riva was a laid back guy, the story would totally be different (and probably really boring).
And that is why I totally loved the film. The writer obviously took time sculpting his characters to ensure that their various traits are what drove the story. Riva’s self destructive nature explains how he left the Congo, how he came back and the trouble he gets himself into after. Also, with the rest of the characters, we see glimpses of their private lives either in action, or as one explains and we get to understand why they make the choices they do.
Riva is the egoistic hero of the story, who is in a vantage position amidst the Kinshasa oil shortages: he has a lorryful of product, which he stole and smuggled across the border from Angola. Making the most he can out of the oil is a balancing act as he should ideally sell it before the Angolans catch up with him, but he also has to wait until the price of oil is at its highest. Meanwhile, the Angolan is fast on his trail after he commissions a Congolese commandant to help him track Riva down.
As he waits for the prices to rise, he and his brother go around Kinshasa living the good life. He puts up at a hotel, punctuating his stay there with trips to night clubs and whore-houses. On his first night out, he meets a redhead named Nora. He instantly falls in love/lust (we never really know). Nora is ‘married’ to local kingpin, Azor. Riva overlooks this fact, which of course further complicates an already mucky situation.
Viva Riva! is a brave film, maybe nothing like any other mainstream feature film from the continent. The first film I’ve seen that has gone full on with themes of sexuality. The scenes of nudity are graphic but not in a pornographic way and weirdly, even I found them necessary. Some of them, I believe, made clear when the situation between Nora and Riva changed. Another one was, in my opinion, used to reinforce the character of one of the commandant and justify her nature. There’s a scene that will surely go down as one of the most erotic I’ve ever seen on film. Hint: a gate is involved.
The film’s best asset is its almost thriller-like storyline. From the top, it’s simple. Sell the oil, get rich and win over a girl. The commander (to ensure her sister’s safety) is to help the Angolans (to get their oil back). The stories weave into each other seamlessly and so professionally directed by first-time writer/director, Djo Tunda Wa Munga. Seemingly minor characters like Anto and Malou are the cogs that push the film in its most interesting directions.
I like it when a writer sets rules for his/her story and is brave enough to follow through without throwing the audience off so as to surprise them later. It’s a device writers sometimes use to bait the audience but it usually doesn’t work so well in the case of Shyamalan. One of the character makes a ‘promise’ somewhere in the middle of the story and that is never tampered with and contributes to an interesting ending.
The acting was natural, which is something we rarely say for a lot of African films. The scene where Riva goes back to his parents’ house is emotionally charged and brings out great performances from Patasha Bay and the actors that play his parents. The Commander and the pimp-like leader of the Angolan bounty hunters give great supporting performances, for which they won AMAA supporting acting awards. The film also won for production design, cinematography, director and the ultimate best picture at the same awards in 2010.
Another thing I liked about the film was its authentic Africanness. Riches are not glossy, as you can see from Azor and Nora’s household. The extravagance is un-Westernized. Even the porn Azor watches in his house is African. The locations are part of the story, and that’s why the film reminds me a bit of City of God. The score and the choice of Lingala as the soundtrack reinforces the authenticness.
I usually dumb it down in my head when I’m watching an African film and let some things that I normally wouldn’t fly. That wasn’t necessary for Viva Riva! as the film is expertly made and does enough to deserve a comparison with other great international films of the gangster/thriller genre. Manie Malone who plays Nora is one of those bombshell sirens you’d expect to see as a Bond girl some day. Sam Mendes should take note.