Location. Location. Location.
The Kinshasa underworld of Djo Munga’s exuberantly sleazy debut feature—which I’m told is the first internationally distributed picture from the Democratic Republic of Congo—is a roiling, congested hotbed of shakedowns, gyrating half-naked women and offhandedly savage beatings. Crippled by a fuel shortage, the entire infrastructure of this godforsaken place seems to have collapsed in upon itself, to a point where even the parish priests have their hands out for a bribe.
Returning home after a decade of dastardly deeds in nearby Angola, chipper young Riva (baby-faced Patisha Bay Mukuna) arrives with a hi-jacked petrol truck and a hankering for local whorehouses. Flush from his big score, the old neighborhood’s prodigal son starts trouble almost immediately, attempting to woo the red-headed moll of a bankrupt, porn-addicted crime boss (their meet involves our hero watching her pee,) all the while blissfully unaware that the Angolian mobsters he ripped off are already hot on his trail.
Munga eschews the hand-wringing pieties one often associates with recent poverty chic pictures in favor of kicky, lowbrow genre tropes. Kinshasa’s appalling living conditions and ubiquitous corruption are all the more powerful for being presented with a matter of fact, cynical shrug. Everyday atrocities carry a sickly comic bent, as when a high-ranking female military official blackmailed into murder accomplice must spend the second half of the movie disguised as a nun.
Constantly shifting alliances and other such pulpy flourishes lend Viva Riva! the crude spirit of a Warner Brothers gangster picture from the 1930s, albeit one with an unexpectedly carnal edge. (The New York Times described one show-stopping sequence as “creative cunnilingus,” though if pressed for an adjective I myself would be more inclined to describe it as “acrobatic.”)
The nuts and bolts of Munga’s filmmaking aren’t always as compelling as his atmosphere of sticky, amoral dread. His meager budget can’t cover some the more ambitious action set-pieces, but the amateurish notes weirdly bolster Viva Riva!’s air of naughty, B-movie transgression. It’s filthy, fatalistic, and way more fun to watch than it probably has any right to be.