Sunday, August 14, 2011

Viva Riva!

If you don't know any French then well before the end of Congolese thriller Viva Riva!, you'll figure out that "Où est Riva?" means "Where is Riva?"

Recently returned to petrol starved Kinshasa from Angola with a fist-full of US dollars and a truck load of petrol, Riva is a popular guy. He wants to go out and party while waiting for the petrol price to peak, so he can make a killing. But his big spending, womanising behaviour is attracting attention. Soon his dapper ex-boss, César, arrives from Angola asking "Où est Riva?" and local crime boss Azor is asking the same question. César is cool, calm and ruthless in his mission to recover his truck load of petrol whereas Azor is a more standard issue African "big man", who is angry and jealous that his seductive girlfriend Nora has been flirting with Riva.

The film divides its time almost equally between Riva, Nora and "The Commandant" a female army officer blackmailed by César to hunt down Riva. The two women are the most interesting characters. The sultry Nora is the shiniest thing in Kinshasa, but is little more than Azor's play thing, but that doesn't stop her going after what she wants with little more than her beauty. The Commandant is a more tricky character, it seems that her main weapons are not her military position or gun but her contacts around the city. She helps under the duress of blackmail which means no-one trusts her.

The finale is suitably climatic and more pessimistic than Hollywood would make it. The message delivered by Viva Riva! is a bleak one, that money is poison, and it contaminates everyone it touches.

Sub-Saharan African cities usually turn up in films as colourful backdrops for short sequences, so it is refreshing to see Kinshasa and its population being the centre of the action rather than the backdrop. Even the outsiders (César and his two henchmen) are only slightly foreign. Kinshasa is portrayed as a chaotic, dirty city, corrupted at all levels where the electricity is intermittent (but the cell phone system works OK). While the actors and the problem of petrol shortage are African, the style of film making is European.

As you might expect some American critics are concerned about the nudity and sex. More seriously some critics consider Viva Riva! to be an exploitation film, but I wonder if they comment equally on the exploitation that is common place in Hollywood films and TV.

Ian's rating 5/5

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