TIFF has gone to great lengths over the years to bring us cinema from the African continent, much to its credit. We often get glimpses of rustic life, or touching and/or depressing documentaries about this or that plight, but rarely do we get films that on their face can be considered, well, good. With VIVA RIVA!, however, we get something that feels fresh, exciting, authentic.

There are no singing lions or bouncing tribesmen here; this is a gritty view of life in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where even visitors from neighboring Angola make fun of the locals for screwing up their country. The film follows certain conventions of the gangster genre, with the young buck coming back into town with his loot in tow, where we find out he has stepped on the wrong toes. The fact that they’re smuggling gasoline rather than drugs not only speaks to the lack of basic infrastructure in the area but adds a whole new take on this type of film: when the criminals must provide bulk necessities, the crimes of the greater nation are also called into question.

An intertwined tale with fabulous performances, VIVA RIVA! has such rich characterization on display that it reminded me more of the THE WIRE than SCARFACE. With a pumping soundtrack and slick HD camera work that avoids shakycam madness, this strong ensemble piece weaves its tale with a frankness that’s just a delight.

VIVA RIVA! compares favourably to the likes of CITY OF GOD, another work that takes the conventions of the American Gangster film and tilts them slightly to create an organic, localized version. A great success, certainly one of the more enjoyable films I’ve seen come out of this continent, and hopefully a portent of great things to come from this group of filmmakers.