Martin Scorsese, meet Djo Tunda Wa Munga, because you obviously have a lot in common. Viva Riva! is nothing less than the Congolese Mean Streets, oozing sexual heat and brute violence and powered by a locomotive’s worth of raw kinetic energy. When a potent gangster flick comes to the back alleys of Kinshasa, the “streets” may be different but not the “mean” – that’s universal and, when directed with verve, it plays on the audience like a toxic adrenalin rush. Yes, all the dark immorality makes for a potent high. How we love what we profess to hate.
The action starts fast from the first frame when, after a prolonged absence, Riva (Patsha Bay) breezes back into town, his pockets flush with cash and his stolen truck stuffed with barrels of something just as precious – gasoline. A cocky fellow, wearing a permanently insouciant smile, he hits the nightclubs and quickly zeroes in on a sultry yet dangerous conquest – Nora the gangster’s moll (Manie Malone), all flaming red hair and silver lamé. His come-on line is hardly subtle but it does race right to the point: “A woman like you deserves to be with me.” She begs to differ, and chase No. 1 is on.
But so is chase No. 2. The owners of the stolen merchandise, a menacing band of Angolans led by Cesar, are hot on Riva’s trail. With barely a pause in the breakneck pace, the rest of the film inter-cuts between the two pursuits, between the sex and the violence. Both are graphic and both get awfully messy. If you doubt that the passion is palpable, watch for an extraordinary sequence where Riva follows Nora back to the gangster’s mansion and, even through the iron bars of the window that separates them, their shared physical urge triumphs. The scene drips with desire.
Meanwhile, blood is flowing as the Angolans seek information wherever it can be found – from a female army commander, from a less-than-savoury government official, from the star attraction at the local brothel. Their favoured tools are the usual arsenal of guns, knives and pulpy beatings; however, since everyone is tainted to some degree, it’s hard to muster any sympathy for the victimized devils. Like Scorsese in his early work, Munga also layers in an assortment of Catholic imagery, but only for the purpose of sticking religiously to his malignant theme – here, even the priests are corrupt.
Elsewhere, the picture mines its social commentary from a pair of dramatically different sources. The first is conventional: the camera lens, which, tracking up the filthy alley that leads to the mansion, reminds us that opulent wealth and abject poverty often keep close company. The second is unique: Cesar, the stone-cold killer, doubles as a blunt social analyst. It’s through his bespectacled eyes, and his Angolan prejudices, that the movie directs the harshest critiques at the current state in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As harsh as this: “Your country is the worst cow pie I’ve ever seen. Maybe you should have remained colonized.”
From there, after a quick detour down an unnecessary sub-plot or two, the climax unfolds as we know it must. Earlier, Nora provided the foreshadowing: “Money is like a poison. In the end, it kills you.” Of course, in the Third World and elsewhere, that’s always the way with money on those mean streets – its presence is just as lethal as its absence.
- Directed and written by Djo Tunda Wa Munga
- Starring Patsha Bay and Manie Malone
- Classification: 18A