Sunday, March 3, 2013

Viva Riva!

The troubled political history of The Democratic Republic of Congo has consistently obstructed homegrown film production, either through colonialism or civil war. Belgian and French productions have shot there (most notably La vie est belle, 1997) but there has never been a truly homegrown production until now. Viva Riva! is the first feature by Djo Munga, who learned his craft in Brussels, but is Congo-born and bred, and has made a very creditable success of his ambition to produce a properly Congolese feature that stands up comfortably to good-natured action thrillers from anywhere else in the world.

After ten years in Angola, good-time gangster Riva returns to fuel-strapped Kinshasa with a lorryload of gas, stolen from an Angolese crime lord now hot on his trail. Intent on living the high-life, against all advice Riva sets his sights on Nora, the fiery moll of local gangster boss Azor. Helped by a female army commandante whose sister they hold hostage, the Angolese beat a violent trail towards Riva, whilst he skips around the attentions of Azor’s goons. As they draw closer, the body-count rises.

There is an undoubted ring of authenticity to the bustling, noisy crowds and the crumbling buildings, only enhanced by a fine soundtrack of local music, modern and classic. One of Munga's aims is to show life in Kinshahsa as it really is, and the opening sequence is a very neat introduction to the seething humanity, the traffic, the makeshift solutions, and the constant hustling, with money as both primary goal and foundation of society. We see inside a thumping club, apparently little different from any other in the world, but with that distinctive tinkling guitar gliding over the beats; more distinctive are some fine firelit drum dancing, and a strange brothel where the women wear traditional masks and chalky body paint, cavorting in pairs as a third throws shapes amidst billowing veils. I’m not sure how true to life that might be, but it makes for a splendidly trippy mood. Good use is made of distinctive locations, from Riva’s higgledy-piggledy apartment complex to Azor’s rather moldy mansion, and there’s a terrific gun chase in the brick-walled maze of a roofless building. The Angolans supply a derogatory external perspective (albeit from a long-antagonistic neighbour state) but Munga himself is happy to show the electricity outages and conditions that look like poverty in a city where the police hold only precarious sway: it’s basically a free-for-all.

Part of the film’s success in portraying life in the capital comes from its tapestry of characters. Even the goons get little moments, and tangential figures like the street kid whom Riva befriends and the priest who wants to buy the gas are given space to register; Azor’s sexual peccadilloes are gradually drawn out; and a little rubber-ball lesbian hooker keeps turning up in dayglo colors and good hats. Allowing so many characters their own lines of action creates a web of motivation that is handled with skill, and Munga manoeuvers them neatly from one situation to the next; another plus is that if someone needs to get Riva out of trouble, there’s always a stray character who can be set up to do the job.

The film allows room for some of Riva’s family problems as well as a surrogate mother at the whorehouse, and his playful pursuit of Nora provides some steamy sex scenes, including a well-executed encounter through a bathroom window. But the film keeps up a good smart pace, driven by the Angolans’ quest; they are also helpful – explicitly! – in dispensing with characters that are no longer useful, and as their trail gets bloodier we can start to see why Riva is so cheerful – life in Kinshasa does indeed seem good compared to what we can only imagine he experienced on his rise through the Angolan criminal ranks. His carefree attitude is somewhat contagious, pretty everyone dresses sharp, the music’s great, and the editing is snappy without being too flashy. None of the characters is shown in an entirely negative light: Azor’s little Caesar is more blustering than threatening, and even the nasty Angolans are frequently played for laughs. It’s a good time.

For all that the film’s various strands are woven neatly together, however, a few elements go astray. The relationship between Nora and Azor is fleshed out to be more than arbitrary but tantalisingly less than satisfactory. For something like the same reason, and despite a spirited performance from Manie Malone, her motivational flipflops only just hold water; likewise her abrupt exit from the film. There is a ring of archetype about Nora as there is about all of the characters, which is not necessarily overcome by letting the performers shine. Excursions into Riva’s psyche are similarly suggestive rather than revealing, and his final cackling moments in the film have a Cagneyish psychosis that would have been interesting a little earlier. Most awkward, however, is the commandante, who is afforded a convenient ambivalence of motivation by her sister’s abduction, and who survives several episodes which should rightly have seen her dead, most ludicrously at the climax.

But none of this matters too much, for this is really a gangster fairy-tale set against a real-life backdrop, both executed to a high standard. The socio-political commentary is not intended to be searching, but does appear to be honestly representative. The action is handled better than efficiently; likewise the network of motivation, character and plot. No allowances need be made for Congo’s non-existent film industry: Munga has made a world-class movie, notches above many others of the type, full of detail, and allowing room for a good range of charismatic performances from a mixed of cast of professionals and first-timers. Enjoyable and engaging.

d/sc Djo Tunda Wa Munga p Boris van Gils, Michael Goldberg, Djo Tunda Wa Munga ph Antoine Roch ed Yves Langlois, Pascal Latil pd Philippe Van Herwijnen m Cyril Latef, Louis Vyncke, Congopunq cast Patsha Bay Mukuna, Manie Malone, Hoji Fortuna, Alex Herbo, Malene Longange, Diplome Amekindra, Angelique Mbumba
(2010, Con/Fra/Bel, 98m)
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