Movie Review: Viva Riva! [Pas de “Spoilers”]

Capture d’ecran de film poster. (IMPAwards)

“Où est Riva?” (Where is Riva?)


An Oil Thief Flames Out in Kinshasa

With comparisons to 2007’s Cidade de Deus and reviews describing the film as a “Congolese noir”, Riva succeeds in making the latter description fitting, while the former hope remains to be seen.

Djo Munga’s film opens at a fast-paced in media res, which is also a favorite first act of American film noir pictures and their overseas cousins (ex. the Jean Gabin-starring Le jour se leve memorably opens with the trapped criminal shoutin’ and rantin’ from his barricaded room). And within the picture’s first 20 minutes, all of the typical film noir signature archetypes stroll onto the screen as this chase story unfolds.

Red-haired Nora, the film’s femme fatale and a strongman’s kept woman, ensnares the film’s protagonist G.O. Riva (Pastha Bay) who returns to Congo after a 10-year sojourn in Angola.

The two first meet a a backyard party playing eye-tag with each other. Riva vows to make her his girl, fully aware that he will have to tend to Azor ,her lover, and his two strongmen bodyguards first.

Taking somebody’s else “property”, however, comes easy to Riva. Siphoning oil in Angola and selling it on the black market was how he earned a living. His return home is, of course, spurred by stealing from his Angolan bossman Cesar. Cesar and his gang of cronies ruthlessly hunt-down Riva, frequently demanding (for it’s never really a question) an answer to the quintessential whodunit line: “Where is [insert name of film hero knockin’ on heaven’s door]?”

As the film winds down (as fast and seductively as Nora does when she finally lets down her guard to Riva), more shifty characters than one would hopefully meet in reality flicker across the screen. Pére Gaston makes a brief cameo, but his justification from extorting money from “outlaws’ is a chuckle-worthy example of corruption caused by the rising cost of living: “Priests need gas, too.”

The sky-rocketing gas prices in the Congo is what further motivate Riva to double-cross Cesar: It’s his last big steal and with the money he hopes to get from selling it, he’ll settle down for a plain-Joe straight life.

However, Nora and his matron figure, Mother Edo, a brothel madame, warn Riva of the danger that my sully his hope of one more successful getaway.

In a bedroom confession, the redhead good-girl-gone-bad mutters this sage aphorism: “Money is like poison. In the end, it always kills you.”

Riva’s “mother” connects his greed with his underestimation of the trouble he always stumbles into, bullheadedly: “Death is a game to you.”

This most stinging lines that boils Riva’s blood are those uttered by his estranged father when he visits his parents. The discord caused by the death of his family’s Abel remains an emotional landmine that erupts when Riva sees his father again.

As an argument reaches its peaks, on the verge of blows about to be exchanged, Riva’s father rebukes him by saying, “You’ll never pay for all the pain you cause.”

Riva’s father speaks too soon. Cesar is a sadist fueled by revenge, and he stops at nothing to make Riva pay for his thievery with the ultimate price, his life.

Side-note: A certain fanning scene made me think of Lee Jun-Ik’s The King and the Clown. I definitely did a double-take before laughing at the awkwardness of how it plays out in Munga’s film. Riva was the only picture I saw at the Angelika Film Center in NoHo (I heart New York’s acronyms) during my brief summer stay in Brooklyn, but I couldn’t afford to pay full price for anymore film outings since I’ve grown accustomed to student discounts. My D.C. student ID: DENIED.

Rating: 6.8/10 – Pure Escapism

The fanning scene in question below:

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