Viva Riva is the epic saga of a small-time hood who has set his sights on the greatest heist of a lifetime. He aims to get the money, the girl and the immortality reserved for only the haughtiest of the arrogant and dangerous.
The story begins when he emerges from the shore after having left the waters that carried him by way of a shabby canoe. The eponymous, Riva is cool in his focus as he returns to the homeland from which he has been estranged the last ten years. Such a humble beginning belies the vicious and turbulent forty-eight hours that follow.
Riva (Patsha Bay Mukuna) is heavy on the machismo as he paints his way through a meager middle class. He is a ladies’ man and enjoys flaunting his ill-gotten wealth, biding his time for the huge payoff to come from his stolen booty: a truckload of gasoline.
Viewers feel the heat of his brutal and naïve pursuit. Every scene is akin to sitting in any one of the myriad of sweltering, dark and tiny rooms in which Riva manages to negotiate. Few and far between are moments of quiet as each interaction serves a purpose to bring the audience, and the leading man, closer to the final showdown.
His native Kinshasa is a piteous country, heavy on dignity and bitter greed. Electricity is scarce and gas is black gold, capable of reaching ten dollars per liter. In a country still climbing its way out of the ravages of war, every day is thug life. Riva goes home yearning for the welcome of a redeemer.
To be clear: Riva is not the good guy. He is the less awful guy. The gas he stole belongs to an unbelievably awful guy – an Angolan – who is extremely level-headed and cold-blooded under pressure.
But, Riva is a romantic and once he catches the gaze of a dancing and luminously confident Nora, played by Manie Malone, he is enchanted. There is a fearless-ness in his pursuit of her and he remains wholly unintimidated by her gangster boyfriend.
Audiences may surprise themselves rooting for Riva. It could be a result of his classic 1980s anti-hero moxy. The bad guy just can’t seem to get him ‘down’, let alone take him there. When threatened with sudden death, Riva never considers begging for his life. His face repeatedly meets the fist of very angry men and he doesn’t blanch or flounder. Viewers are in awe of his very coeur d’espirit.
It has been a very long time since a film was true to its portrayal of real life on the dark side. The street thugs of Kinshasa only know war. Their country is one of dilapidated buildings and unpaved streets. Young people can only hustle their way to the next meal and benefit from the purchase of whatever someone is willing to buy. The Urban-American gangster flicks of the 90s barely touch the grim and problematic cycles of life expectancy in this urban experience.
There never seems to be a clear image of the future Riva has for himself as he bides his time awaiting the sale of the stolen gas. He is so completely engaged within every moment that every action, every move he makes is captivating. His hate and insolence towards the Angolan is his cross to bear and the reckoning he envisions becomes a tangible, contagious and monstrous thing.
Many lives are lost in the Angolan’s pursuit of retrieving his stolen commodity. People are beaten, tortured and shot at point-blank range. A blade lands dead-center in the back of a known traitor. Brothels and bordellos are visited. Sex and sensuality are overt. Corruption is everywhere. With every step, Riva’s mentor and former employer, known only as the Angolan, is on his tail.
The cinematography is emotionally gratifying and intense. Traveling through the streets if Kinshasa, audiences are right in the middle of overflowing thoroughfares. Traffic flow is sporadic as there are no light signals and pedestrians wander everywhere.
At night, the streetlights glare on shantytowns. Drums pulse to exotic rhythms and painted bodies writhe and gyrate under hypnotic abandon. In the unpaved roads and rock strewn hills, the fight for love and glory unfolds.
There is an amazingly diverse berth of characters to challenge audiences’ sense of justice. Unlikely alliances are formed. Friends become enemies. Viva Riva packs a kick to the jugular that is discombobulating and grand.