2005Director: Gavin Hood
Cast: Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto, Kenneth Nkosi
illed as the next City of God and recently anointed with this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Tsotsi has a considerable reputation to uphold. Upon catching director Gavin Hood’s amazing acceptance speech at the Oscars, during which he spoke around four languages and proceeded to spend 30 of his 60 seconds alerting the audience how much time he had left, one may have reasonably harbored doubts about Tsotsi’s ability to live up to expectations. And while the film cannot quite measure up to its formidable accolades, Hood’s lack of oratory talent belies his skill as a writer/director.
An adaptation of Athol Fugard’s (only) novel of the same name, Tsotsi tells the story of six days in the life of a small-time gang’s adolescent leader. The film is set in present-day Johannesburg, as opposed to the 1950s Johannesburg of Fugard’s work; an update that represents a truly significant change, because it allows Hood to forego any rumination on apartheid. Instead, he focuses his energy on the theme of redemption, although unstated social commentary on class remains.
The audience is briefly introduced to the titular character (Presley Chweneyagae), and then treated to a scene in which he and his three henchmen mug an elderly gentleman at knifepoint. (Tsotsi is, after all, a colloquialism for “thug.”) At the first hint of protest from their victim, Tsotsi’s most despicable running mate, Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), kills the genial old fellow with a surgeon’s precision and chilling glee. The four quickly retreat to a watering hole in their section of the ghetto, where sharp tongues set the story in motion.
Boston (Mothusi Magano), the best educated and most compassionate of Tsotsi’s droogs, is horrified at the end-result of their night’s work. He berates his companions for their lack of decency, singling out Tsotsi, who greets the ranting with an unsettled stare. Boston hits a nerve when he repeatedly asks whether an emotional loss caused his friend’s coldness, mentioning the possibilities of lost love, deceased parents, and, finally, a dead dog. Tsotsi snaps, beats his mate into a pulp, and storms out of the establishment into the rainy night.
Our protagonist runs wildly from the slums, ending up in a posh suburb where he seeks shelter under a beefy tree. There, Hood reveals a bit of Tsotsi’s traumatic childhood, juxtaposing the adolescent’s shivering form with an identical scene from a pre-pubescent past. But before any more of Tsotsi’s back-story can be revealed, the young thug is greeted with an all too tempting opportunity. From his perch at the big tree’s base, Tsotsi spots a woman driving a BMW. She starts to pull into the driveway directly across from our man, but her house’s security gate malfunctions and she’s forced to exit the car to use the intercom. Tsotsi seizes his chance, getting to the driver door before she spots him, and brandishing an automatic pistol when she turns back toward the vehicle.
Rather than yield to the threat of a gun, the woman charges for her car, forcing Tsotsi to put a round in her midsection before speeding away. Her behavior is puzzling, until her attacker hears the unmistakable sound of a baby’s cries emanating from the back seat. The shock is enough to cause Tsotsi (a shaky driver to begin with) to lose control of the Beemer, maiming an innocent road sign in the process. Tsotsi grabs everything of value he can find and begins to flee, but is drawn back by the protestations of his helpless stowaway. Instead of abandoning the infant, he snatches what will become the catalyst for his redemption.
Over the better part of the next week, Tsotsi clumsily cares for his new burden with a mixture of his own Big Daddy-esque techniques and the assistance of a local widow, Miriam (Terry Pheto), whose help he enlists at gunpoint. Warmth heretofore unseen in the budding gangster develops through his interactions with the child and Miriam, and Boston’s calls for decency take on new meaning. Tsotsi faces a conflict between the anger that has informed his baseline behavior and the tenderness beginning to sprout in his life. The resolution of this conflict is contained in a truly great climax, in which Tsotsi is forced to choose his path.
Between the aforementioned climax and the beautiful cinematography, one can see why Tsotsi has won countless awards. The film’s problems are largely mitigated by its strengths, but an early section that drags, no indication of Tsotsi’s nature (other than Boston’s accusations), and curious behavior from a number of characters are all legitimate gripes. Chweneyagae is fabulous in places and ordinary in others, and in that manner, his performance fits the film. Tsotsi is, at times, great while at other times, tiresome, but the heights reached make the film difficult to forget.
By: Kevin Worrall
Published on: 2006-03-31