Thursday, September 1, 2011

Viva Riva!

MPAA (R) Roger Ebert (3 ½ stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars) 

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert -

Viva Riva! (written and directed by Djo Munga) is an African Academy Award Winning (best director) English-subtitled French language crime thriller which comes from the Congo and is a reminder to me of one of the joys of going to the movies.  For the price of admission or a rental (still on the order of eating at a fast food restaurant) one can be transported for two to three hours to a totally different time and place.   And with the world becoming ever more interconnected, the stories being told in these films are becoming more and more authentic.  For this is _not_ Hollywood or some colonial power going to Africa to tell a story.  This is an African (Congolese) writer/director using African actors to tell a gripping contemporary African tale with both characteristic African humor and style. (The Servite Friars to whom I belong have presences and native friars in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa (KwaZulu-Natal), Swaziland and Uganda.  Additionally, the Servite Sisters are in various West African countries including Cameroon, Ghana, Togo and the Ivory Coast.  And since our Order has never been particularly large (never more than about 1000 friars world-wide, despite having been around since 1233 around the time of St. Francis), I've gotten to know a fair number of our African friars and other friars from around the Servite world.  And besides meeting at various international Servite gatherings and so forth, like a good part of the rest of the world, a good number of us are on Facebook ;-).  So I'm not kidding when I say that this movie has an authenticity to it that non-African productions about Africa generally do not have).

So then, what is this Congolese story about?  Riva (played by Patsha Bay) is a charismatic and resourceful late 20-something to early 30-something con-man native of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  For perpetually fuel-starved Kinshasa (on account of endemic political instability and civil war), Riva arrives with a truckload of barrels full of high-grade gasoline that he diverted (stole) and smuggled into the country from neighboring, oil producing Angola.  Instantly, Riva becomes the toast of the town, with everyone with some money from Kinshasa’s relatively well-to-do, to the authorities, to organized crime figures to even a local Catholic priest wanting get some fuel from him. 

At a nightclub on the first night after coming into Kinshasa with his truck full of gasoline, Riva spots a stunning young woman named Nora (played by Manie Malone).  Riva’s best friend and partner advises caution.  Afterall, a woman that attractive had to be attached to someone.  And he’s right, Nora is the current girlfriend of local organized crime kingpin Azor (played by Diplome Amerikindra), who doesn’t kindly to the handsome, younger and charismatic Riva hitting on her.  Even Nora initially tells Riva to give it a break, that she’s just not interested in some upstart.  So Riva and his best-friend head off and spend the night at a Kinshasa hotel/brothel run by “Mother Edo” (Nzita Tumba).

The next day, a rather angry Angolan organized crime figure named Cesar (played by Hoji Fortuna) appears with a posse of about five henchman at a border crossing seeking to enter into the DRC.  Cesar and his posse sequester the Commandant (played by Marlene Longange) at the border crossing, tell her that they have her sister in Angola and will kill her unless she helps them find Riva and the stolen shipment of gasoline. 

Much ensues.  Riva does manage to charm his way into Nora’s heart while keeping always a few steps ahead of jealous Azor.  A local Catholic priest takes pity on the woman Commandant and helps her escape Cesar and his henchmen, hiding her in a convent.  Then in the guise of a wronged, righteous and rather well armed nun, the Commandant then sets out to bring _all the evil doers_ in this tale to justice. 

So despite the relatively wild night clubs / brothels and some steamy sex (though always portrayed with some discretion), the story actually ends up playing out as something of a morality tale: 

During the course of the film, we get to meet Riva’s parents, and Riva’s parents are _not_ impressed with his new-found, ill-gotten money no matter how popular he had otherwise become.  And the Commandant turned-nun slowly exacts justice on the various evil doers of the story.  She herself, does not take-down many of them.  In most cases, the various king-pins and their henchmen shoot or otherwise kill each other.  But by the end, though wounded, she’s pretty much the only one left standing.  And Nora’s words, which she told Riva on the night in which she _did_ end-up in bed with him, that “money ends up killing everyone it touches” resonate loud and clear to all.

Yes, this is an R-rated tale, but it is truly well done.  And in the midst of the drinking and sex, guns and strobe lights there is a morality present and presented in a way that one would not necessarily have expected.  This is a movie that is worth seeing (by adults) and it does have a message worth hearing and taking to heart.

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