Viva Riva! 2010 Democratic Republic of the Congo (96 minutes) written, directed and produced by Djo Tunda Wa Munga.
A protagonist pursued by a ruthless out-of-town mobster, with a femme fatale and corrupt or toothless civil authority, against the backdrop of a city which is a character in its own right sounds like pure film noir.
But this is not Los Angeles, New York or San Francisco in the 1940s; it is Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, in our own era.
Congolese director Djo Tunda Wa Munga has taken a cue from what the German Expressionist directors behind film noir did in Hollywood. Rather than copy and quote classic American movies to tell his ‘gangster story,’ he uses his art to tell a good story to an unsophisticated audience.
This is not to say an unintelligent audience. Munga aims for moviegoers more like those in Depression-era America, in contrast to Americans nowadays whom directors expect to bring with them a sophisticated vocabulary of details from American film and television of the last 80 years. He also avoids the didactic tone that can make African feature films tedious to watch.
Here in his first feature film, he starts from scratch. The result is fresh and eye-opening. In the eyes of a native, this sprawling ‘poubelle’ of more than eight million people flickers to life as a place with its own distinct flavor, its own beat, its own logic.
In this sense, Munga meets the creators of the HBO television series The Wire. Like The Wire’s David Simon and Ed Burns, Munga tells a believable story in a place he knows well, in which real people go about their lives and where the city itself becomes a character.
It is not a pretty story. This is the land that Belgian Emperor Leopold II made, where Joseph Conrad found his ‘heart of darkness’. It has been racked with war and civil strife since its independence 60 years ago. It is a tough, unforgiving place.
Riva (Patsha Bay) is a Kinshasan who has spent a decade working in neighboring Angola. He has managed literally to siphon off a truckload of gasoline that he takes back to gas-starved Kinshasa to sell through his partner, G.O. (Romain Ndomba), a black market broker. They have roughly 10,000 liters of gasoline—about four dozen 55-gallon barrels—to sell for as much as ten American dollars per liter.
Back in Kinshasa, Riva hooks up with childhood friend J.M. (Alex Hérabo) with a fistful of American hundred-dollar bills looking for a good time. The night life has a lively, sexual pulse. The club scene would not be out of place in the U.S. or Europe; there also are public and private places where dancers follow more traditional country practices brought to town by workers from Congo’s backlands.
The dancing seems to be what Kinshasans most enjoy. Removed from their tribal settings, the drumming and dancing, especially as performed by women in brothels in body paint and masks, suggest an intermediate step between the source and so-called ‘voodoo’ rituals in the New World.
However, for those who may watch with a delicate constitution or hardy children, there is a lot of explicit sex and violence in this movie.
The free-wheeling sexuality has a desperate, dysfunctional feel to it. With the exception of Riva’s brief liaison with the femme fatale Nora (Manie Malone), which would not be out of place in an American movie, the sex portrayed is performed more between unequals than a shared pleasure. Connected with this is the gratuitous slapping, beating and kicking around administered to women and people of lower status.
The use of language also is of note. In general, Congolese use the local French, ranging from a demotic street patter to more conventional forms used to impress or intimidate. For Angolans, French is a lingua franca secondary to their native Portuguese. Swahili and tribal languages such as Lingala are used informally between friendly familiars, but also to disrespect people or to put down those of lower status.
Riva sets his sights on Nora whom he sees dancing at one of the traditional venues. Nora turns out to be the moll of Azor (Diplôme Amekindra), a local heavy touted the ‘Strongman of Kinshasa.’
Azor does not take this upstart seriously; he has enough problems of his own.
Meanwhile, César (Hoji Fortuna), Riva’s former Angolan boss, arrives in the city in an immaculate white linen suit with his enforcers, looking for the employee who stole a small fortune in gasoline from him. César extorts La Commandante (Marlène Longage), a Congolese army post commander with whom he has a history, to help him find Riva.
César and his men look down on the Congolese as being hopelessly backward. They pay for this dim view when they are held up briefly by country-proud officials, but César brutally overcomes this obstacle more determined than ever to catch Riva.
G.O. warned Riva at outset against discussing their scheme with anyone—‘After all, this is Kinshasa,’ he said. But word of Riva’s purported bounty hits the city grapevine, fueling an imagination that fires the greed of everyone from Azor to Père Gaston (Bavon Diana Landa), a crooked Roman Catholic priest. Everyone is after the booty. Though, as Nora tells Riva, ‘Money is like poison: in the end, it always kills you.’
True to the code of film noir, the story, which takes place in the space of a just a few short days, screws down to a matter of time—Night and the City time.