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Do That Congo Beat

MOVIE REVIEW
Viva Riva! (2011)

Viva-riva-patsha-bay-mukuna
Music Box Films

It’s wonderful to see a movie that knows exactly what it is doing, and looks great while doing it. It’s fantastic to see a movie completely frank about sex, money and the violence people are willing to commit in pursuit of those two things. It’s brilliant to see a movie where the script is as smart as the staging, and where the staging doesn’t just make you wonder how much it has cost. And it’s so much fun to see a movie that takes its perfect setup and perfectly delivers.

Riva (Patsha Bay Mukuna) left the city 10 years ago for work, but sneaks back in with a truckful of gasoline just as the city has run out. Although all the money shown is crisp $100 bills, the city itself is Kinshasa, Congo. To facilitate its sale, he reconnects with old contacts: profiteer Joaquin (Davly Ilunga), old friend gone straight J. M. (Alex Herbo) and madam Mother Edo (Nzita Tumba), as well as street urchin Anto (Jordan N’Tunga). Riva also encounters local crime lord Azor (Diplome Amekindra) who wants a cut, and Azor’s incredibly gorgeous girlfriend Nora (Manie Malone). But Cesar (Hoji Fortuna) — the rightful owner of the gasoline — and his crew are on Riva’s trail, and they have the help of the Commandante (Marlene Longange) and her savvy girlfriend Malou (Angelique Mbumba) to track Riva down.

So “Viva Riva!” is a chase movie, where Riva must stay ahead of Cesar, woo Nora, figure out the best time to sell the gasoline in order to maximize his profit and stay alive while doing so. Cesar and his henchmen are like the Furies: remorseless, never resting and capable of extreme violence. Everyone in the movie, with one exception, is motivated purely by money. The city is a connected, endless network of people happy to share their knowledge for a price.

The film is notable because it’s the first film made in the local language, Lingala, for more than 20 years. (Plenty of French and some English is spoken in it, too.) Director Djo Tunda Wa Munga, who also has written the script, appears to have chosen to film in his home country as a political act. But he has chosen to make a movie that speaks for itself.

Many reviews of “Viva Riva!” have discussed how the movie’s upfront and frequent sexuality is unusual for African cinema. One might go further and say that the movie’s frankness is unusual for current cinema, period. Riva is a man controlled by his appetites, but he is so open and cheerful about it no one much minds — except during a devastating scene near the end. That confrontation does much to counteract the world in which Riva and Nora choose to live and remind us there is another way in Kinshasa.

Ms. Malone is an extremely beautiful French actress who is the only Westerner in the cast, while Mr. Fortuna is an Angolan actor who lives in New York. All the others have been cast from Kinshasa: Mr. Mukuna is a well-known musician, while most of the others are local theater actors. Mr. Fortuna and Ms. Longange both have won well-deserved African Movie Academy Awards for their performances. They are the driving forces of the film, working together under duress. Ms. Longange keeps her feelings to herself while struggling to do her best, showing the Commandante’s determination to be true to her military training while keeping blood off her hands. It’s a quietly phenomenal performance — and the choice to make the military commander a woman is the more compelling. Conversely, Cesar is a man who has killed his humanity and capacity for feeling a long time ago. At one point he asks another character why she should remain alive. When she sputters in shock, he says “Then you’re useless” and calmly shoots her in the stomach. What Hollywood movie would dare show that?

Actually, “Viva Riva!” is ripe for a Hollywood remake. Just as all good gangster movies, it depicts a total world. Criminal tentacles stretch from the police station to the whorehouse, from nightclubs to churches. A gangster such as Azor can have six cars, and a child such as Anto will sell his loyalty for $20. The women are sexually free; the men are heavily armed; the city is falling apart around them; and all of them are caught up in whether or not Riva will earn his big score. The inevitability of the ending is fresh as well, in that it is so surprising, so uncompromising and so clever. “Viva Riva!” is a terrific, wonderful film; and if Mr. Munga holds his luck and his nerve, Kinshasa will become the new home of brave world cinema.

VIVA RIVA!

Opens on June 10 in New York and Los Angeles and on June 24 in Britain.

Written and directed by Djo Tunda Wa Munga; director of photography, Antoine Roch; edited by Yves Langlois; music by Louis Vyncke and Congopunq; production design by Philippe Van Herwijnen; produced by Boris Van Gils, Michael Goldberg and Mr. Munga; released by Music Box Films (United States) and Metrodome Distribution (Britain). In Lingala and French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. This film is rated R my M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Patsha Bay Mukuna (Riva), Manie Malone (Nora), Hoji Fortuna (Cesar), Alex Herbo (J. M.), Marlene Longange (Commandante), Diplome Amekindra (Azor), Angelique Mbumba (Malou), Nzita Tumba (Mere Edo) and Jordan N’Tunga (Anto).

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