Africa. The world’s heart-shaped continent; the cradle of humanity; the nexus of the slave trade; a hotbed of frequent famine, drought and poverty. It has always been incomprehensible to me how the so-called civilized world can allow all that suffering to take place. Africa is the guilty conscience of every human being possessed of empathy, and the miasma of misery that prevails in large parts of the continent remains unbearably tragic. I personally blame all the governments of the rich world for largely ignoring the on-going humanitarian disasters in Africa, and I am still puzzled as to why Europeans made a proper and successful effort to colonize North America, but not Africa. I imagine it’s mostly to do with the climate.
At any rate, if you want a good and realistic impression of what life is like in some of the worst parts of Africa, watch Viva Riva! It is a crime thriller and action movie, but the really important thing is its portrayal of the living conditions in Kinshasa. Chaos reigns. There is a shortage of all resources, frequent electrical blackouts, stark corruption is the casual reality of everyday life, and social cohesion is almost non-existent. Police, government, church, army, black marketeers and common people all work at cross-purposes in uneasy alliances, the result being moral and domestic dissolution.
Riva is an intelligent but cocky small-time criminal, who’s estranged from his church-going parents. He’s returning to Kinshasa after a ten-year absence, and he has procured a truck-load of one of the most scarce resources in Kinshasa: gasoline. Now he sits on the fuel, selling it off bit by bit, stashing most of it until the price goes higher still. Suddenly having come into money, he celebrates by taking his friend, J.M., to fancy nightclubs and the best prostitutes. J.M. is reluctant, as he has recently settled down with a woman and two kids, but gradually he gives in to the temptations of the high-roller life, causing his domestic situation to self-destruct.
Riva acquired the truckload of fuel down in Angola, and a small group of ruthless, well-armed Angolan thugs who figure it’s their fuel follow him to Kinshasa to take it back. Meanwhile, Riva becomes infatuated with a beautiful woman, Nora, who belongs to one of Kinshasa’s crime bosses, Azor. From there the story descends into a dizzying morass of violence. The beginning is a bit slow, but eventually the pace evolves into tremendously exciting territory, always with a feel of perfect and complete realism. It firmly draws you in and takes – or rather, slashes – your breath away. The ending, too, does not compromise. While the horrors of this life consume most of the players like an avalanche, the movie still manages to show us why people endure; how life can go on.
The technical qualities of this production are excellent on all counts, and the depiction of the extremely problematic living conditions is comparable to the accomplishments of a great documentary. Is this movie entertainment or is it serious drama intended to showcase the harsh realities of life in Kinshasa? It is both to equal degrees, and in this combination it demonstrates its brilliance. If you have any interest at all in African cinema and/or African life and reality, I know of no better way to experience both than Viva Riva!
The review copy of the DVD had no extras, but the transfer was clear and crisp.
Viva Riva! is out on DVD 17th October 2011.
Director: Djo Tunda Wa Munga
Cast: Patsha Bay, Manie Malone, Hoji Fortuna, Alex Herabo, Diplome Amekindra and others
Runtime: 98 min.
Country: Democratic Republic of Congo, Belgium, France