Monday, September 26, 2011

The Root of All Evil

Before last Thursday evening, I had never seen a movie from the Congo. Oh, I had seen movies that were set there--When We Were Kings is a good example--but never a feature film produced and financed by the Congolese. There's a good reason for this, actually. There hasn't been a feature film from the Congo in a quarter of a century. Viva Riva! (2010, directed by Djo Munga) breaks this silence, while demonstrating the structural barriers to a national Conglolese cinema at the same time. It's also a brutal exploitation thriller. If you're going to found a national cinema, there are worse ways to go about it.

The McGuffin in Viva Riva! is a hijacked truckload of gasoline. Our hero, the eponymous Riva, has stolen the gas from some hard-ass Angolans and taken it to Kinshasa, where shortages have made gasoline into gold. The Angolans, lead by the dapper Caesar, follow Riva, and enlist a corrupt commander from the local army to help the find him. Riva, meanwhile, has fallen hard for Nora, a gangster's girlfriend, and suddenly finds himself doing stupid things to impress her. All parties to this melodrama are obliged to navigate a landscape where corruption is as endemic as the air they all breathe. Everyone is out for themselves. Money makes the world go 'round.

The story is the hook here, because the ethnological details, exuberant though they may be, are pretty dire. This is a world where everyone who can get out gets out and where the sole way of getting out is hustling up enough cash to leave. There's a tendency to look at the unfamiliar setting as a kind of exotica, but this is the world to come after peak oil and plutocracy wreck the economies of the world, I think. This gives the audience a classical film noir construction: flawed anti-hero, femme fatale, hostile city. This puts the film on a familiar basis. Greed and lust are universal motivators, and they play out here the same way they play out in films everywhere else in the world, though I think Kinshasa may be the ideal hothouse for such stories. I once heard someone theorize that the reason that there are so many movies about boxing is because boxing is the most corrupt of sports, hence boxing stories tend to be more fertile ground for the moral conflicts that make good drama. If this is true, then the Kinshasa of this film is fertile ground. I'd be interested in the story behind the making of the film, which took seven years presumably due to the institutional corruption involved in funding the production. In any event, it's refreshing to see a movie set in Africa in which the drama is not a mirror for white colonials. There's a heart of darkness in this movie, to be sure, but it's not something used to expiate white guilt.

I like to think that this is the Congolese equivalent of a Scorsese movie. It certainly uses some of the same cinematic techniques, including an absolutely hammering needle-drop soundtrack of African techno. I wonder how much of the texture of the movie I missed by not understanding the music. Certainly, the violence in the movie would be at home in any contemporary gangster movie anywhere in the world. As an exploitation film, this knows the notes to hit. Violence, sex, lesbians, the works. Director Djo Munga clearly knows how to make a commercial film.

I was kind of surprised at the sexual content of this film, not knowing how the sexual mores of sub-Saharan Africa shake out, but I was happy to see it, too, because the leads, Patsha Bay Mukuna as Riva and (especially) Manie Malone as Nora, are VERY easy on the eyes. Manie Malone in particular is the kind of classic femme fatale that makes the actions of the men in her orbit comprehensible. She's Jane Greer in Out of the Past, which, perversely, this film kind of resembles. The other characters hold the screen, too, particularly Hoji Fortuna as the dapper and lethal Caesar and Marlene Longange as the morally conflicted Commander.

Basically, this is another in a long line of movies about bad people doing bad things, and like many such movies, everyone gets caught in the downward spiral. The final conflagration at the end of the movie pretty much sums up the world of this movie, in which everyone is dead except a kid who has a sack of money and a truck he can't drive. He pretends to, anyway, which is as sardonic an ending as you could probably expect.

As an aside, the movie references that great boxing match, "The Rumble in the Jungle" between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, so I think the boxing movie might be an apt point of reference after all.)

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