A nineteen year-old nameless thug leads his gang from their outlying shantytown into Johannesburg where they earn there keep by robbing others of theirs. When their crimes escalate to murder, though, Boston (Mothusi Magano, "Hotel Rwanda") begins to question just what it would take to make this cold killer feel something. They come to blows and the rattled young gang boss runs, finding himself in an affluent suburb on the scene of an easy carjacking. The baby he discovers in that car's back seat sparks a redemption for the boy known only as "Tsotsi."
Writer/director Gavin Hood updates Athol Fugard's ("Boesman and Lena") 1950s set novel using his background making educational films for the South African Department of Health in an inventive way. Fugard's 1980 book focused on the beginnings of Apartheid and Sophiatown in particular as the cause for his thug's ("Tsotsi's" slang meaning) behavior. Hood makes the devastation of AIDS the ruination of South African childhoods. Beginning with the subway billboard that proclaims 'We are all affected by HIV and AIDS,' Hood gradually reveals in flashback just what formed his Tsotsi, ending his film with Tsotsi aping the poster subject's stance.
Tsotsi's (Presley Chweneyagae) gang which also includes Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), the shiv bearer who silenced an old man and Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), a big lug who's followed Tsotsi's lead since childhood, are so under educated they have trouble adding the numbers on their dice throws. They live in hovels (Hood, widescreen cinematographer Lance Gewer and production designer Emilia Roux give the shantytown the feel of the wild west, where gun slingers stride down dirt roads bordered by wooden dwellings) and spend their money on drink at the bar run by Soekie (Thembi Nyandeni). But once Tsotsi makes the decision to keep the baby he unwittingly kidnapped, he cuts himself off from his crew, hiding the baby from all except a young mother (Terry Pheto). Tsotsi forces this young woman to feed his baby, but Tsotsi's return to the decency Boston had argued for kindles the beginning of an exploratory relationship.
Hood's film works on so many levels. He avoids so many cliches and heavy-handed irony in his storytelling and the Toronto Film Festival Audience Award winner never panders to or overtly manipulates its audience. The acting is fine across the board with an ensemble mostly making their feature film debuts. Presley Chweneyagae easily carries the film with his moving and dramatic character arc. Sound design (sound by Shaun Murdoch, South African Kwaito music by Zola, who also plays Fela) is striking. Early sound, such as a train going down its tracks, is so effectively replaced with music it is almost unnoticeable. As the film progresses, its sound becomes more realistic, suggesting Tsotsi's emotional state and return to humanity.
"Tsotsi" carries a hopeful message of redemption and human decency while also painting a sad picture of the far-reaching effects of the AIDS epidemic on a country's children. ("Tsotsi" is South Africa's second nomination for "Best Foreign Language Film," the first being 2004's "Yesterday," another film about the legacy of AIDS.)
The mean streets of the Soweto ghetto in Johannesberg are the home for small time gang leader, Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae), and his posse of thugs. They are utterly ruthless, taking life indiscriminately, but there is trouble when one of his minions questions the morality of what they do. Tsotsi’s ultra violent response to this questioning of his authority sends him to the streets that bore and raised him. He seizes the opportunity to hijack a car in an affluent neighborhood, shooting the lady driver in the process. But, he soon learns that there is a three-month old baby in the car, triggering long dormant emotions in the violent teenager in “Tsotsi.”
Tsotsi means “thug” in the language of the Soweto streets and the title character is just that. 19-year old Tsotsi was orphaned at an early age and lived a near feral existence in the Johannesberg ghetto. Now he’s the boss of his own gang of thugs - Boston (Mothusi Magano), Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe) and Aap (Kenneth Nkosi) – and they commit the violent crimes that will make them underworld pros. But, Boston’s protest over one particularly heinous killing show there are chinks in Tsotsi’s control of the gang. He brutally beats his loyal lieutenant for the infraction.
Tsotsi’s inevitable criminal lifestyle hits a crossroad when he hijacks the car containing the baby. The shock of the find almost makes him flee but something deep inside makes him pack the three-month old child into a shopping bag and disappear into the night. He takes the tyke to his hovel in Soweto town and makes the decision to take care of the baby by himself. But, this seemingly easy task soon proves too huge a responsibility for Tsotsi. He spies a young mother in the water line and tracks her home, forcing her at knifepoint to feed his baby. Between the child and the young woman, a catalyst of change takes place in the mind and heart of the young man.
Tsotsi” is both a film about the violent gang subculture in Johannesberg and one of redemption for its title character. The aggressive, even cruel, lifestyle that is Tsotsi’s is tempered when the tiny baby enters his life. The young man sees anew his own sad life of being orphaned at a young age and being forced to grow up, out of control, on the ghetto streets. There is caring and, even, love for the stolen child though Tsotsi lacks parental skills and must seek the help, especially her milk, from Miriam (Terry Pheto). This semblance of stable familial life is a first for Tsotsi and a change for the better may be in store for the young man.
New-to-these-shores director/scripter, South African Gavin Hood, does a wonderful job adapting the novel by Athol Fugard, bringing to real life the story of Tsotsi. The simple tale of redemption is uniquely told and first time screen actor Presley Chweneyagae, in the title role, has genuine presence. The small supporting cast doesn’t get much screen time but do well enough fleshing out their characters, from the members of Tsosti’s gang to kindhearted Miriam. The baby’s mother and father, played by Nambitha Mpumlwana and Rapulana Seiphemo, ring true in their brief time on screen.
Lenser Lance Gewer captures the poverty and desolation of the Johannesberg ghetto and brings a crisp look to the film. Production designer Emilia Roux also depicts the tough life of Soweto town that consists of struggling to exist and not much more. This is particularly effective when the filmmakers show the other orphans, just little children, and the tough life they live, in all kinds of weather, in sections of stacked sewer pipes. Some might not call this even existing.
Tsotsi is one of the Academy Award nominees for this year’s best foreign language film. But, with so many incredible contenders for the Oscar, it’s a real horse race. Such a dilemma for film fans – having to see such terrific movies like this, “Sophie Scholl” and Fateless.” I give it a B+.
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