Grade: CTsotsi (2005)

Director: Gavin Hood

Stars: Presley Chweneyagae, Mothusi Magano, Terry Pheto

Release Company: Miramax

MPAA Rating: R

Official Site

Gavin Hood: Tsotsi


Johannesburg City Centre from the Carlton Centre, Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa
Johannesburg City Centre from the Carlton Centre, Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa Photographic Print
I'Anson, Richard
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Winner of the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Tsotsi deliberately tugs at the heartstrings--making it almost impossible not to like. With pointed themes of redemption and hope woven into its poverty stricken modern Soweto setting, all rhythmically punctuated with upbeat South African musical choruses, filmmaker Gavin Hood aims for Oscar gold and succeeds with that audience. The film will also play well for mainstream American audiences that love their television melodramas that spin out predictable and politically correct messages without digging too deeply into their characters. Keep the story light and airy, and you have a true audience pleaser--so give Tsotsi credit for achieving its aim. It's just a rather banal project that leaves more demanding viewers empty—a sign of more to come from Miramax as it aligns its sensibilities even more with its parent company, Disney.

Its R rating comes primarily from opening scenes of violence when cold-eyed Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) and his gang of "thugs" (the English translation of the film's title along with the generic name given the lead character) stab and rob a middle-class man on the commuter train, among other acts. After this initial act, gang member Boston (Mothusi Magano) can't stomach Tsotsi's heartless murder and confronts him about "decency," only to be mercilessly beat to a pulp by the young hoodlum.

Estranging himself from his comrades, Tsotsi wanders into the night, initially encountering and following an elderly crippled man who habitually begs for coins at the train station--asking him why he bothers to live. While this indicates that Boston's query has disturbed the protagonist, the sequence also foreshadows a coming flashback that ties into his past family life and psyche. (Don't worry, as strange as the encounter is, the filmmaker isn't stretching the audience here.)

The biggest jump the audience must take rests in plot credibility. Tsotsi has few qualms about killing people, soon ruthlessly shooting a woman in the stomach just outside her upper middle class gated Johannesburg home, but even this thug can't bring himself to harm or abandon the helpless (and cute) baby passenger that he inadvertently has kidnapped when stealing the woman's car. Now we are expected to believe in nearly instant redemption, almost along the lines of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus.

Tsotsi's paternal instincts kick in, and he strives to care for the baby boy--removing its soiled diaper and wrapping him with newspaper, feeding him condensed milk, and carrying him around in a shopping bag. Somehow, the baby never cries when out in public and now Tsotsi shares numerous flashbacks to reveal his childhood challenges to make him a more palatable protagonist. Like many children in AIDS stricken Africa, he has survived many years on the streets without nurturing, but he does recall early years when his mother cared for him.

That drives him to seek a "mother" for "his" child, and he initially achieves this the only way he knows—forcing a young nursing mother (Terry Pheto as Miriam) to care for the baby at gunpoint. Now “she" is far more believable, and the camera captures her transformation from skeptic to mother as she suckles the child. Her back story itself would be worthy of a movie, as she struggles to scratch out a living by sewing and making decorative mobiles. A tentative friendship develops between the two, with Miriam serving as moral compass, pleading for Tsotsi to allow her to care for the child and then for him to do the right thing and return him to his rightful parents. As touching as these scenes are, the filmmaker cannot restrain himself from including real melodramatic clunkers. When Tsotsi asks about a rusted metal mobile and is told that she made it when "sad," we already KNOW what the brightly colored mobile beside it signifies. But of course, the screenplay has to clobber the audience over the head with the self-explanatory quip about "happiness."

Not that this is such a bad incident by itself. What I found irritating and ultimately disappointing was that this same pattern holds throughout the entire film, creating little more than a simplistic morality play with a cardboard figure protagonist with so little emotional range that the entire tale feels trite and manipulative. Both Miriam and Boston could develop into more interesting and nuanced stories than the path of the obvious taken with the chosen protagonist.

Too bad because it really is a pleasure to visually explore the shacks of Soweto, examine the retro train station, and to see glimpses of the widely varying lifestyles that exist side by side in modern Johannesburg. But Tsotsi is no City of God, but then again such a complex portrait that doesn't offer a paint by numbers vision of hope would never score as well as this film did with Academy voters. And this one will get plenty of play in American theaters and DVD players; it's a formula that appeals to American masses.
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