Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Kinshasa Story: Viva Riva!

In Kinshasa, life is cheap, but gasoline is expensive (even more so than here, at least for now). When a small time gangster commandeers a shipment of stolen gas, it is definitely worth killing for in writer-director Djo Tunda Wa Munga’s frenetic crime drama Viva Riva! (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Viva does not lack for confidence. Indeed, ripping off his Angolan boss César was a bold play. If he can stay alive long enough, he is in for a big pay day. Of course, his idea of lying involves hitting the seamy Kinshasa nightlife hard with his old friend, J.M. Not having enough heat coming down on him yet, Riva starts hitting on Nora, the captive girlfriend of the local drugged-out crime lord, who is admittedly gorgeous.

Persistent rather than smart, Riva eventually wins her over, plunging headlong into a passionate affair, despite the looming threat of César. Holding the lesbian lover of the local police Commandante hostage, the Angolan mobster even has the services of the ostensive local law enforcement on his side. It should just about equally match Riva’s recklessness. Spectacular mayhem will ensue.

Amped-up to eleven, Viva has a polished style well beyond mass-produced Nollywood fare some viewers might be familiar with. It also departs rather explicitly from the Christian subtext often found in independent Nigerian cinema. Munga is not content to merely depict the unvarnished seediness of the DRC’s capitol, he flat-out revels in it (reserving the pseudo-Christian for the serpentine César). Frankly, the bold, brash, and lusty Viva might have something to offend everyone, particularly in its depiction of women. Yet, it seems pretty clear Munga is holding up a mirror to nature and the attitudes widely prevalent in the DRC.

Frankly, Viva’s propulsive energy should overwhelm all but the strongest impulses to tut-tut at its gleeful political incorrectness. Though they hardly have a chance to take a breath, the cast is also quite strong. Paris-based Manie Malone makes a particularly strong impression as Nora, bringing considerable depth and dimension to the apparent femme fatale.

Shot on shoestring, Viva serves as a dramatic calling card for Munga, announcing him as a filmmaking talent to be reckoned with. In fact, it is much like the experience of watching Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi for the first time (hopefully, there are no Spy Kids in his future). The film also sounds great thanks to the Afro-Beat soundtrack composed and compiled by percussionist Cyril Atef. Recommended for hip (but not necessarily hipster) viewers, Viva opens this Friday (6/10) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.