Tsotsi (United Kingdom/South Africa, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When a director can take a reprehensible monster and, over the course of a scant 90 minutes, turn audience reaction from distaste to sympathy, that's the mark of an adept filmmaker. This occurs in Tsotsi, an emotionally honest tale of redemption that never forgets there are consequences for bad acts, even when those acts are committed before the arrival of salvation. The film uses a degree of manipulation to make its point, but it is refreshingly light on sentimentality. While aspects of Tsotsi don't ring true, we are nevertheless left with an affecting character study that offers jolts to the system.

Gavin Hood has taken Athol Fugard's 1960 novel and re-shaped it for a post-Apartheid South Africa, where racial divides have largely been replaced by schisms of class. Society is still fractured, as is evident from the plight of the majority have-nots. The fact that some blacks have joined the middle and upper classes does nothing to alleviate the despair of those mired in poverty. However, by setting Tsotsi in 2005 rather than 1960, and by having only one white character in the film (in a minor and non-controversial role), Hood has removed race from the equation. That's not to say Tsotsi lacks a political message. Hood delivers it quietly and without fanfare, as in scenes where we see the city's expansive ghettos in the same frame as the grand skyline of Johannesburg.

Tsotsi (Presley Chwenayagae) is the leader of a nasty gang of four who seemingly have no bounds of decency in obtaining what they want. After a callous murder that nets some cash, one of Tsotsi's men, Boston (Mothusi Magano), mistrusts his leader's conscience. When his questions hit a sore spot, causing buried memories of Tsotsi's horrifying childhood to bubble to the surface, he explodes in anger and beats Boston senseless. Soon after, he commits a carjacking, only to discover a baby in the backseat of the vehicle. Tsotsi decides to bring the child home with him and try to raise the boy, but soon determines that he is out of his depth. So he enlists the help of Miriam (Terry Pheto), who agrees at gunpoint to act as a wet nurse for "David." Gradually, Tsotsi's experiences with David, Miriam, and a crippled man he harasses, force him to face his demons and move on. In a karmic sense, that means righting wrongs and making amends.

Although Tsotsi's most notable component is the sense of emotional satisfaction and catharsis it offers as we join the title character on his journey from the gates of hell to spiritual reclamation, it also offers moments and images of startling power. The film's portrayal of the initial robbery and murder is presented with a simplicity that will chill the average viewer. Later, there is a scene depicting dispossessed individuals huddling together for warmth in unburied concrete pipes during a downpour. And there's a shot involving ants that will force some viewers to wince and turn away. It should be noted that Tsotsi is a beautifully shot and framed picture, with the frantic camerawork that often characterizes movies like this replaced by sure, steady cinematography.

Newcomer Presley Chwenayagae gives a credible performance that allows us to accept Tsotsi's transformation. The change doesn't happen suddenly; it's a gradual process and each step is represented. Our initial impression of Tsotsi is that he's evil incarnate. Subsequent events force us to revise our opinion. There's something broken deep within this young man, and the narrative allows us to follow him on the path of healing. Tsotsi ends on a bittersweet note. One journey has been completed but another is about to begin. The first deals with redemption and the second with consequences. What makes this film worthwhile is that it can provide the former without ignoring the latter, and thereby allow viewers to leave the theater without feeling cheated.

Tsotsi (United Kingdom/South Africa, 2005)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2006-02-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Zulu, Xhosa, and Afrikaans
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1