Foreign cinema conjures up a collection of very specific stereotypes, even (perhaps especially) for seasoned film fans. After all, myriad cultural dictates play a huge role in not only what types of movies get made internationally, but which are lauded and/or positioned in a fashion to then penetrate the American cinematic market. Viva Riva!, a flamboyant and sprawling crime picture whose style and plotting recollects movies like City of God and (to a lesser extent) Shottas, is a foreign film that smashes some of these preconceptions of what an African movie is, can or should be.
Plot-wise, Viva Riva! is fairly simple and straightforward, charting the return of native son and small-time hood Riva (Patsha Pay Mukuna, exuding a raw charisma) to Kinshasa, Congo, where he turns a quick score by stealing truckloads of precious, in-demand fuel from his Angolan crime boss, Cesar (Hoji Fortuna). Out to spread some of that cheddar and have a good time at the city’s bars and strip clubs, Riva quickly goes Charlie Brown — which, in this case, is to say he falls under the sway of a red-haired girl, Nora (Manie Malone, above). Problem is, Nora is spoken for, the girlfriend of quasi-ineffectual local criminal kingpin Azor (Diplome Amekindra), a descendent of Congolese kings who keeps his woman under his thumb.
Writer-director Djo Tunda Wa Munga — whose film justifiably scored six African Movie Academy Awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design and two Supporting Actor prizes — has a confidence that comes through in virtually every pore of Viva Riva!. His film is marked by a sexual frankness certainly at odds with much of African cinema, but just as striking if not more so is the unfussy, matter-of-fact candor with which the filmmaker treats the insidious reality of sociopolitical corruption in his country, as well as the juxtaposition of impoverished shantytowns with bustling, pulsating nightclubs. Tonally, there’s a certain dispassionate detachment that serves this material surprisingly well, abetted by a top-to-bottom technical polish, including some gorgeous cinematography. For the full, original review, from Shockya, click here. (Music Box Films, R, 96 minutes)