Viva “Riva” ‘s Refreshing Tread on Familiar Territory

(Note: Originally Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Money. Sex. Violence. Three of the most common exploits any filmmaker has at their disposal.

To say writer-director Djo Munga paints the Congolese metropolis of Kinshasa red with those elements in “Viva Riva!” opening Friday at the Harris Theater, Downtown, is an understatement. With each stroke of his lyrical craftsmanship, a candy-colored, blood-soaked neo-noir tale comes alive within the darkest corners of an urban Congo. Money, sex, and violence are a way of life for these people.

“Money always kills you in the end,” one character says. And on the brutally violent streets of Kinshasa, so can a night of steamy sex.

Riva (Patsha Bay) learns these truths the hard way. He’s a smuggler, but not in the typical sense. There’s a gasoline shortage, and he’s stolen a large amount from a gaggle of Angolan gangsters. They’re none too pleased, and use the money-hungry Congolese citizens to retrieve it.

There is no moral high ground hovering over any part of “Viva Riva!” Every character is deeply flawed, a criminal or demonized in one way or another. This makes for some interesting reversals on traditional values. But it also makes everything devilishly fun.

“Viva Riva!” ultimately covers familiar ground popularized by the films of Michael Mann or Ben Affleck (as director, that is).

It does, however, offer something new in its fantastical, mystical representation of familiar gangster narratives with an exotic twist.

But, like the click of a safety, “Viva Riva!” is over before you know it, thick gunsmoke lingering in its absence.

Sure, you’ll witness a fair share of dollars raining, steamy encounters and buckets of the bright red stuff along the way. But like a young Tarantino, Mr. Munga’s fresh perspective reminds us that distinctive stylistic cinema is all about how the dirty work is crafted, not simply hawking gruesome subjects and praying for a reaction.

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