The Democratic Republic of Congo is a very different place from the settings of most gangster films we see here in the States, but “Viva Riva!” would be right at home in a collection of underworld movies. This is a mostly by-the-numbers tale of a young criminal trying to make it big. Filmed in French and Lingala, the subtitles may provide a gloss to cover the occasional flaws for some.
Riva (Patsha Bay) grew up in Kinshasa, the capitol city of the DRC. After ten years as a low-level criminal in Angola, he has returned home with a huge truckload of gasoline to sell through his old contacts. The story is ordinary enough — he sees a beautiful woman, the girlfriend of the most powerful gangster in town and falls for her, and meanwhile he must evade some ruthless enemies who have followed him from Angola — and it is the images of Kinshasa that set this apart from other films in the same genre.
The film is at its strongest when it follows the initial tone, painting pictures of the poverty, desperation, and joy in the face of hardship endemic in Kinshasa. It’s almost dreamlike, with carefully-composed shots and elegant camerawork. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long to devolve into a choppy, nihilistic take on the evils of greed and money.
The central characters are inconsistent, with the exception of the leader of the small group of Angolans who are after Riva — he is dead-eyed and casually sadistic without pause. Riva is generally charming and sympathetic, but the first night he sees Nora he spies on her when she goes to relieve herself in the bushes, and the second time he finds her, he corners her outside a bathroom and after looming over her and refusing to let her go, forces a series of passionate kisses on her. Riva’s friend Cesar (Hoji Fortuna) is friendly and a good wingman, but cheats on his wife and eventually brutally beats her while her children watch. It’s possible that the director intends the film to showcase how the charming criminals we like to idolize are terrible people to the ones they should be kindest to, but the film’s tone seems to regard their casual brutality as ordinary, and Riva’s creepiness as romantic.
One might think from the title that “Viva Riva!” is going to be a jaunty, exciting film, but it’s far from it. This is a grim look at a grim series of events. The sex and the violence are both graphic, and at times hard to watch (this is not a film which holds anyone in high regard, least of all women). If you’re looking for a fun movie to watch while you get out of the heat, “Viva Riva!” is not it. This is a movie for lovers of international film, for those curious to see what a film made in the DRC by a Congolese director and actors looks like, and for those who are not faint of heart.