Viva Riva!

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

27 October

Creation of Zaire, 1971

On this day in 1971, Zaire was created, and continued in existence until 1997. Previously the country had been called the Congo Free State, the Belgian Congo, Congo-Léopoldville and Congo-Kinshasa. It would later become the Democratic Republic of the Congo (not to be confused with the Republic of the Congo, its neighbour).

Whatever its name, it is the second largest country in Africa, with 250 ethnic groups speaking over 700 local languages, hence the importance of French as a lingua franca.

The country’s name was changed from Republic of Congo-Léopoldville by Mobutu Sese Seko (born Joseph-Desiré Mobutu). He chose Zaire as a more African name for the country. This, in spite of the fact that Zaire is a name deriving at least partly from Portuguese and that Congo is an entirely African word.

Under Mobutu’s policy of Authenticity, citizens were required to abandon European names, towns such as Stanleyville and Léopoldville were renamed Kisangani and Kinshasa. It was in Kinshasa that Muhammad Ali and George Foreman had their famous “rumble in the jungle” in 1974 – where Black Power and Authenticity touched gloves.

Zaire’s president and de facto dictator was Mobutu, from its founding moment until his rule was ended by the First Congo War in 1997 (an overspill of the civil war in neighbouring Rwanda which had found tinder in disaffected ethnic groups in Zaire). He was the archetypal if not clichéd African leader: an idealistic intellectual anti-colonialist who promoted a cult of personality once in power, embezzled gigantic quantities of his country’s wealth and led an entirely corrupt administration which broke the economy of a country rich in resources.

The day after he forced Mobutu to flee the country, rebel leader and self-proclaimed president Laurent Kabila suspended the constitution and changed the country’s name from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, often abbreviated to DRC.

Viva Riva! (2010, dir: Djo Munga)

There’s a remarkable scene early on in this homegrown gangster thriller from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Smalltime hoodlum Riva (Patsha Bay), recently back in town, is dancing at a club with a smoking hot woman (Manie Malone), the moll of local crime boss César (Hoji Fortuna). She excuses herself to take a leak. He follows her outside and we see her squat halfway down, pull her knickers to one side and take a piss onto the soil. Just like that.

And that about typifies this film – earthy, steamy, gutsy, uncompromising. Viva Riva! has all the attributes that film noir is meant to have, but which usually only turn up in a stylised way these days. Actually maybe it’s closer to a western, the sort where there’s a frontier town (as the Kinshasa portrayed here seems to be), a lawless place where unspeakable brutality by day is matched by hard partying and sex by night.

Which brings me to the scene where Riva follows his new heart’s desire back to her gangster boyfriend’s house and performs cunnilingus on her through the bars of a bathroom window (bathroom? bedroom maybe). There’s lots of hetero sex in this film, some lesbian grappling, a good dose of gruesome brutality and plenty of tough dialogue – one of the hoodlums’ threatens “I’ll carve her vagina out” at one point. Or how about the fuck-you line delivered by a mistress to the man who’s decided to bail out and go back to his wife – “You’re ugly. You don’t know how to fuck. Your children are morons.”

And weaving through all this is Riva, a character vaguely derived from African stories about Anansi the trickster spider – he’s bold, wise, cunning and funny, a smart crook trying to fence a load of gasoline he’s stolen.

Viva Riva! has some unforgivably terrible acting in it here and there. But not by the leads, they are rock solid in a film that’s got atmosphere to spare, that makes you gasp on the inward breath and laugh as you exhale.

Why Watch?

  • Congolese cinema – wow
  • A great new director in Djo Munga
  • Absolutely no punches pulled
  • So atmospheric you can almost taste it

Viva Riva! – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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