A Profound Story of Redemption
Rarely do moviegoers get to see a profound film that grabs them by the throat and holds them hostage until the end credits roll. Tsoti, one of those rare surprises, is so compelling that I had to view it a second time.
Based on the novel by Athol Fugard, Tsotsi tells the story of a young man whose life in the shantytown of Johannesburg, South Africa, has been anything but pleasant. Tsotsi (the street slang for thug) is a 19-year-old gang member who lives in a shack with no water, electricity or bathroom facilities.
Orphaned as a child, Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) was left to raise himself. A mean and angry gang leader of other social misfits (Mothusi Magano, Zenzo Ngqube, Kenneth Nkosi), Tsotsi lives to instill fear in others. In one scene, a cohort asks him questions that send him down memory lane. Because the recollections of his life are so painful, Tsotsi lashes out and beats his gang member violently.
Tsotsi has an animal instinct to survive, which he does by stealing. He’s never learned or experienced compassion, and this is clearly demonstrated when he threatens a legless man in a wheelchair with a knife and demands the man’s only means of existence, the tin can in front him filled with coins.
Now working alone, Tsotsi decides to steal a car. Only minutes later does he discover there’s a newborn baby in a car seat in the back. Never having driven a car before, Tsotsi crashes on the side of the road. He starts to walk away, hears the baby crying, then returns. When his hand on the baby comforts the child into silence, Tsotsi experiences a reaction he never expected. In a split second, he decides to take the baby along.
From the moment he takes the baby home, Tsotsi begins a six-day journey that transforms his life. He has someone who needs him, and he thinks he can care for the baby. He tries to feed it condensed milk, which is sticky and results in ants covering the child’s face. He attempts to clean up a messy diaper and wraps the baby in a newspaper. Within days, Tsotsi can no longer stand the baby’s crying and knows the child needs to be properly fed. A woman with a young baby in the marketplace is his answer. He follows her home and makes her breastfeed the baby at gunpoint.
Living alone since her husband died, Miriam (Terry Pheto) is at first afraid of Tsotsi. But when he returns several more times for her, she sees a baby who needs her sustenance and a young man who can use her help.
Gavin Hood does a phenomenal job directing this film and in drawing out of the actors the exact emotion needed to attain their character arcs. He doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to what gang violence is all about, but he also weaves in a breadcrumb trail to another way of life. Taking place in Africa of the 1950s, the film’s setting transcends the physical distinctions of the different class systems existing in Tsotsi’s town. The excellent scene showing small orphans who live all by themselves in the drainage pipes helped set the atmosphere of what Tsotsi’s life was all about. And it was also instrumental in making Tsotsi realize where he had come from and where he no longer wanted to be.
Hood made the right casting decision for his film. Although he made a trip to LA and was offered several notable performers, Hood said they didn’t feel right. Back in Johannesburg he had tested many kids and almost gave up when Presley Chweneyagae walked into the room. After only a few takes, Hood knew Chweneyagae, who had never acted before, was the right one for the part. Chweneyagae’s performance far exceeds that of many of his Hollywood peers, and I hope to see him again on the big screen.
Don’t let the fact that Tsotsi, winner of many film awards, is in subtitles dissuade you from seeing one of the year’s better films. This movie proves that even when redemption seems impossible, one simple act can make a life-changing difference.
(Released by Miramax Films and rated “R” for language and some strong violent content.)
Read Diana Saenger’s reviews of classic films at http://classicfilm.about.com.