|Directed by:||Djo Tunda Wa Munga|
|Written by:||Djo Tunda Wa Munga|
|Cast:||Patsha Bay Mukuna, Manie Malone, Hoji Fortuna, Marlene Longage, Diplome Amekindra, Alex Herbo|
|Studio:||Music Box Films|
|Genre:||Drama, Mystery, Thriller|
This is the first feature film from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And what a movie it is. I will first say that it is not what you might expect from a country trying to tell its story. Writer-director Djo Munga took his inspiration from the post-war European directors who came to Hollywood and made some of the most beloved of what came to be called film noir. So his movie is also a noir story about a generally good man who tries to make his dream come true by pissing off the wrong crowd.
Riva has just returned to Kinshasa after a ten year absence in Angola. He brings with him a truckload of stolen gasoline, at a time when the city is nearly out. The fence he works for intends to wait until the gas prices skyrocket, and then cash out. Because this is the Congo, the payoff will be more humble than if this were in Europe, America, or Asia. Some Angolan gangsters, led by Cesar, a small, deliberate man decked out like a pimp in a blaxploitation movie, blackmail a female Congolese soldier into helping them locate Riva, since in Kinshasa Riva's a nobody. But Riva is a playboy, and he likes to party. He hooks back up with his cynical best friend who had settled with a wife and children, but is only too happy to stay out and go to brothels, now that Riva is back. At a party Riva encounters Nora, a gorgeous woman with red hair who is the girlfriend of a gangster named Azor, a fierce bully who seems to garner respect mainly because he's bigger than everyone else. Riva needs to prove to Nora that he truly loves her, and being a bachelor in Africa, that doesn't mean he doesn't fuck everything in sight. It just means when he's with her, it's different. Nora comes across as a surprisingly strong character. She probably wound up with Azor because she thought he could protect her, though he seems to take her for granted. When he pawns one of her earrings, it's kind of cute the way his henchmen promise personally to get it back, but damn if she isn't just that beautiful. Cesar and his men meanwhile prove to be merciless, and when they massacre some rural policemen, incriminating the soldier as an accessory to murder, it becomes very clear Riva is in danger. There is an amusing and brutal scene later when they come face-to-face with the bone-headed Azor.
As Riva, Pashta Bay has much of the same energy that Richard Widmark displayed in Jules Dassin's 1951 movie "Night and the City." That same charm that makes you pull for him even when you can see he's in over his head. Manie Malone as Nora is truly ethereal in her beauty, and we even get a prolonged, but still tastefully shot bathtub sex scene between her and our hero. Oh, the movie doesn't skimp on the sex, though to director Munga's credit, he always keeps it just tasteful enough to be erotic and not pornographic. Hoji Fortuna as the devilish Cesar never raises his voice above a whisper, his wiry frame makes him seem almost benign, and he is very deliberate in how he walks, and indeed, how he acts, even when he's killing people. His men, while bigger than he is, act almost entirely as extensions of his will. It is like Cesar is the Devil incarnate, the most evil of men for whom nothing is sacred but his money and the means to avenge those who wrong him. Alex Herabo, as Riva's best friend J.M., makes an interesting character, based in part on some of the more unlikable aspects of domestic life in Africa. He's a cynical family man who seems only too ready to flee the coop, and later shows a truly chilling violent side.
The story is formulaic, but the location and details make it resonate more as a good piece of filmmaking. The idea of gasoline being the commodity to trade is believable, and yet, in America we are never so desperate for fuel as these people are. Kinshasa also makes for a sharp contrast to the rain-slicked streets of the classics, with unpaved roads, frequent power outages, and dancing by bonfire.
An interesting thing I found about this movie is, despite the cultural misogyny, and the focus on the men, it's the women who come out stronger, and in one case, even heroic. It's possible that's a detail I imagined all on my own, but I'd like to believe the director intended it.
If you are a fan of film noir, and interested in what an African take on the genre might look like, this is a must-see.