A gritty portrait of ghetto life in contemporary South Africa, Tsotsi packs an unexpected emotional wallop. Gavin Hood's film tells a story of violence and redemption that's even more remarkable when you consider that neither of the lead performers had ever acted in a movie previously. It's little wonder that Tsotsi won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
The title is street slang for "gangster" or "thug" (Tsotsi-Taal is a local patois spoken in many black townships around Johannesburg). In this film, based on the only novel ever written by South African playwright Athol Fugard, the term also refers to the title character, who, either intentionally or unintentionally, has erased his given name and his early life from his memory and now goes simply by Tsotsi. Unwilling or unable to recall the pain of his own childhood, he finds it impossible to feel compassion for others.
Unprepossessing physically, save for his cold, expressionless eyes, Tsotsi (played by Presley Chweneyagae) rules his small street gang with an iron fist. The group consists of the even more cold-blooded Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe); a dimwitted misfit, Aap (Kenneth Nkosi); and Boston (Mothusi Magano), the only one among them with any education -- or conscience. When Boston expresses misgivings over the killing of a robbery victim, an enraged Tsotsi beats him almost to death.
Later that same night, Tsotsi carjacks a woman who has left her car running in the driveway while she opens her front gate. When she resists, he shoots her. It isn't until several miles down the highway that he hears the baby crying in the back seat.
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The infant calms down when Tsotsi looks at him, and without knowing why, the surly young man takes the child with him and flees. He tells no one that he has the baby, making excuses not to let his gang inside his one-room shack. Tsotsi quickly grows attached to the child, but realizes he's not equipped to care for it. So he spots a young mother at the village water pump and follows her home, forcing her at gunpoint to breast-feed the infant. He returns to her again and again, and his continued exposure to the kind, maternal Miriam (Terry Pheto) triggers memories of his own brutal childhood. And for the first time, he begins to question his propensity for violence.
Tsotsi works on myriad levels: as a hard-hitting and violent depiction of those living on the margins of society; as a taut, tense drama; and as a classic tale of redemption. It's been likened to Fernando Meirelles' brilliant 2002 film City of God, presumably because it depicts the similarly crime-infested slums of Rio de Janeiro, in which the socially and economically disadvantaged turn to violence without any sense of remorse. And while both films do highlight communities in which class, rather than race, divides people and where those living on the fringes of society exist very much in the present, the comparison otherwise isn't really apt. The emotional journeys taken by the central characters are quite different. The films also have different rhythms and elicit very different feelings in the viewer.
Among a uniformly strong cast, Chweneyagae and Pheto are particularly notable. Pheto's subtle, completely convincing performance -- as well as her Madonna-like presence -- are anchored in an almost tangible emotional veracity. Chweneyagae, who has no formal dramatic training whatsoever, is so in tune with his character that he seems to be drawing from his own life experiences.
Without giving away the film's ending, suffice it to say that writer-director Hood has come up with the perfect closing scene. While it differs from Fugard's novel -- indeed, the screenplay digresses in several minor ways -- the changes ring completely true. Hood also has updated the story: The novel was written and set in the 1960s (though it didn't find a publisher until 20 years later), while the film takes place in present-day Johannesburg. Given the universal subject matter and the sadly timeless nature of the social ills addressed, Tsotsi has plenty to say to audiences everywhere.