Tsotsi is a young gang member whose name means "Thug". Playing "Alex" to his "Clockwork Orange" Droogie Gang, he's a disaffected criminal who emerges from his ghetto to rob from the rich and give to himself. Early in his eponymous film, Tsotsi is accessory to a brutal and eye-raising murder that sets in motion a series of ripples in the lives of the gang. It is during this time that Hood (who also adapted the Screenplay) seemed determined to prove out Tsotsi's complete amorality as his rampage brings him out of the gutter and into the gold of the affluent city.
Tsotsi 101 should tell you that this baby has the approximate half-life of a country album in a Compton record shop. However, for all his rough and violent exterior, Tsotsi has a deceptive depth to him. Does this mean he's suddenly "the good guy"? No more than it makes Benedict XVI a Hessidic Rabbi! However the bambino does turn Tsotsi's rampage from one of crime and violence to one of questions and pensive introspection.
Presley Chweneyagae is wonderful (and practically mesmerizing) in the title role, turning a stern and granite grimace into a broken look of pain at the turn of a phrase without ever once betraying his turmoil to his amigos. Much of the time as the man morphs from New Jack Hustler to Robin Hood in (what he sees as) the best interests of his new ward, he manages to do some categorically deplorable things, usually with a pistol at full thrust in front of him. But director Hood uses this all as an opportunity to affect a cinematic X-Ray into this thug's soul. Just who he is, why he has become this way and why it is that a strange and needy baby would bring about these changes in him is quite striking to see, even as most of us want to yell at the screen "JUST BRING THE KID BACK TO IT'S DADDY, WIDONCHA!?"
This isn't an easy movie to watch, although it is a superbly rewarding experience. Much of my time was spent squirming in my seat at the bleak sights I was shown, and much more even than that, the anticipation of what Tsotsi and company might do. Seeing some of the sad and scary things the innocent (and usually, somehow, smiling) baby must go through would be hard for just about anyone with a soul to endure. Gavin Hood is hardly heavy-handed in his messages here. He uses realistic situations and actions to tell not only a this story, but a commentary on one aspect of life in South Africa. "Class" and "Race" are not shown as the same thing here, which is refreshing.
For all the "lessons" that can be gained in this film, this is no simple metaphorical fairy tale. This one hits first and hits hard right where it counts! The story (based on the book by Athol Fugard) is compelling and the characters are at once complex and well-developed. Every one of these impoverished kids has a story, some of each you are told, some of each is kept private, just as if you were meeting these people for real. The varied personas of Tsotsi's team like Boston AKA "Teacher Boy" (Mothusi Magano), Aap (Kenneth Nkosi) and Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe) seem like mismatched pieces, but the story (and their sub-stories) make them believable, if uneasy in their alliances. Special recognition has to be given to the delicately beautiful young mother in the township named Miriam (Terry Pheto). Her supporting role brings us one more level of strength in an already rich detail. As we learn more about Tsotsi, where he's going and where he might end up, it's Miriam who shows him that he still has some growing to do.
It all leads up to a surprising Finale that could go in multiple directions, but hits the nail on the head any way you drive it. The deep parallels between the unlikely characters and events, the shaky balance in the lives of the characters from both sides of the tracks and the past, present and future of our main character are all laid bare for us to gnaw on as we hold our collective breath for the final act.
It's a rewarding film to say the least with more than a few nods to the familiar classics like A Clockwork Orange in its makeup. It's also told in a broken and mixed Zulu Xhosa and Afrikaanized English (subtitled, even when all the words are recognizable), which adds to the skillful reconciliation of opposites. Few movies today are this effective in their mix of symbolism and individual story. The acting and directing take it all three steps further, and make Tsotsi a keeper. Four and One Half stars out of Five for Tsotsi. South Africa isn't always known as a filmic Mecca, but to say the very least Gavin Hood proves that there's more than a lot of talent in that country. Watch out for that guy, and watch out for our star Presley Chweneyagae! Your uncle Oscar most certainly is!
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