Media It’s a hard-knock life 

Tsotsi offers gritty redemption in Johannesburg’s slums

“Tsotsi” means “thug,” and even that epithet is fairly kind to the character who wears the name in this celebrated new film from South Africa. “Thug” suggests more threat than follow-through, more meanness than menace, but Tsotsi himself is a cold-blooded killer. Right up front, we see his crew intimidate a man out of his wallet on a crowded train; when he looks like he may balk, they quietly slip a shiv into his chest and prop the dead man up for the rest of their commute. When the most thoughtful member of the gang raises concerns after the fact, suggesting that he’s not up for such wantonness, Tsotsi beats the hell out of him.

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Presley Chweneyagae makes a stunning debut as the title character in Tsotsi, an engrossing film that makes some uncomfortable Hollywood-like compromises.

Played by the magnetic Presley Chweneyagae (it’s his first acting credit on the Internet Movie Database, and if this is truly his debut it’s a stunning one), Tsotsi isn’t a gangster with a heart of gold; if there’s a heart in his compact frame at all, it’s just a muscle for pushing blood around. So it’s a tiny stretch to believe that when he hijacks a car with a baby in the back seat he doesn’t leave the wailing child on the side of the road. Once he sticks the babe in a shopping bag, cynical viewers may have an inkling why Tsotsi has won over so many audiences.

The killer cares for the kid, in his way. He doesn’t go suddenly soft, and his missteps aren’t cute — this isn’t Big Daddy. To the contrary, some of Tsotsi’s child-care improvisations have stomach-turning consequences. The mix of nastiness and humanity is enough to sell the film to many viewers who would otherwise consider it corny; on the other hand, The Onion’s Scott Tobias says it’s “a little like watching City of God morph into Three Men and a Baby.”

There’s more to that observation than a cheap jab. Tsotsi boasts a stylish grit that makes Johannesburg slums look almost pretty — the lens is rarely far from a filter, and its focus is sweat-on-forehead sharp. If director Gavin Hood doesn’t have the flair of City of God director Fernando Meirelles, he at least knows he needs some gloss to get his movie shown overseas.

Dir. Gavin Hood; writ. Hood, Athol Fugard (novel); feat. Presley Chweneyagae, Mothusi Magano, Israel Makoe, Percy Matsemela, Jerry Mofokeng, Benny Moshe, Nambitha Mpumlwana, Zenzo Ngqobe (R)

On the other hand, the emotions here aren’t as cheap as those in some throwaway weepie or Hollywood fluff. In one sequence, Tsotsi tries to pawn the child off on a group of young kids who camp in a stack of unused building material; we glimpse a community whose deprivation and desperation is shocking even compared to the tin shanties around them, and it comes as no surprise that Tsotsi used to call these concrete pipes home. Strangely, this doesn’t feel manipulative either.

Eventually Tsotsi connects with a single mother who can help him keep the child alive. As in all things, he forces her to help when asking would have done the job. He comes to depend on her generosity, while juggling adoptive fatherhood with his responsibilities as leader of the gang we met at the movie’s opening. He starts neglecting crime because covering up for the kid is such a hassle; between that and flashbacks depicting a predictably lousy childhood, our sympathies drift in the thug’s general direction.

Hood starts to step over the line as the film goes on. The soundtrack feeds us bits of ooh-ah vocal — South Africa’s answer to Enya, maybe — meant to stir our emotions, and the smell of redemption hangs thick in the air. Things don’t get really groan-worthy, though, until the final sequence, in which a confrontation that could have played out simply somehow becomes a standoff threatening the baby’s life. It makes no sense within the narrative, but perfect sense for a movie — and it forces us to ask on our way out of the theater whether the film’s exoticism has made us swallow more than we should have.

By John DeFore

More by John DeFore



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