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Tsotsi   (released 4/12/2006)
By Neil Norman

When thinking of South African film, Oscar-winner Charize Theron usually comes to mind. This year, South Africa gained another Academy Award winner when Tsotsi, adapted and directed by Gavin Hood from an Athol Fugard novel, picked up the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. I thought it was well deserved.

Tsotsi is a gritty morality tale set in the shantytown ghettos of Johannesburg, South Africa. The film follows a week in the life of Tsotsi, played with equal amounts of charisma and ruthlessness by newcomer Presley Chweneyagae. "Tsotsi", translated loosely, means thug or gangsta, and Chweneyagae's character definitely lives up to his self-given moniker. Although teenaged Tsotsi is still very young, he is ferocious and unfeeling, a product of his crime-ridden environment. He runs his crew with an iron fist and commands respect from even the older thugs in the neighborhood.

After an argument and handing out a beatdown to one of his crew members, Tsotsi goes on a solo job. He goes to check on a house in the rich part of town that he has staked out and decides to strike when he sees a Mercedes pulling into the gated residence. Tsotsi carjacks a woman who might be the age of his mother if he had one. He shoots her, leaving her bleeding in the street while he peels out of the driveway.

The chaotic fleeing scene is made more gripping as we realize Tsotsi doesn't really know how to drive (and in fact probably isn't old enough to have a license). We gasp in astonishment, just like the character, as we hear the first cry of the baby in the back seat. Tsotsi abandons the car in the country and strips the inside of anything he can haul off as loot. After thinking long and hard about it, he places the baby gingerly in a shopping bag and takes off with the infant and the rest of his ill gotten gains.

Tsotsi claims the baby as "his" and goes through the wringer trying to take care of it (including feeding the child canned evaporated milk which results in a bad case of ants and diapering the baby with newspapers). These actions (and the reactions of his peers, who see their boss doing weird things, although they don't discover the baby until later) are often comic, but the underscored intensity of the true gravity of the situation is always there. He sees a young mother named Miriam, played by Terry Pheto, filling her water jugs and he follows her home, forcing her to breastfeed the baby at gunpoint. Although she is initially frightened, she sees through Tsotsi's thug life bravado and connects with him.

We learn about Tsotsi's background by bits and pieces of flashback, distributed economically by Hood. One of the most striking images in the film is that of a village of street urchins who take shelter in abandoned concrete sewer pipes left on a forgotten construction site. We find out later why Tsotsi has such an affinity for this group. We also learn Tsotsi's real name in a scene with his father and mother.

Tsotsi is an interesting mix of a film. It strikes me as, perhaps, Menace to Society meets Mr. Mom. There is a delicate juxtaposition of hyper-realistic acts of crime and violence with moments of comedy and philosophical introspection that all serve the thematic purpose of answering one question. Can Tsotsi discover and re-connect with his humanity? Even though Tsotsi is a vicious criminal, we are drawn to sympathize with him, both by Chweneyagae's soulful performance and Hood's careful revelation of backstory. The viewer buys emotional stock in Tsotsi and his quest for humanity and redemption. You end up rooting for him, even while you are questioning yourself for doing so. I won't divulge the outcome of the story, but you might be surprised at how it ends.

Neil Norman is a freelance writer and a graduate of the University of Central Florida. Neil also works on independent film productions.

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