A baby changes a hardened street thug in
Thursday, March 23, 2006
With brutal honesty and violence, a tremendous performance and a very cute baby, South Africa’s Tsotsi took home this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, telling a powerful tale of human suffering and redemption and deftly negotiating a fine line between honesty and sentimentality.
As the film’s title character, newcomer Presley Chweneyagae is nameless—“Tsotsi” means thug in his native tongue. The unquestioned leader of a low-grade criminal quartet in the townships of Johannesburg, not even his friends know this stone-eyed, baby-faced killer’s real name. He is without emotion, clearly having shut down at some point in his past. Life is cheap in Soweto. Existence is bleak, and Tsotsi has the antithesis of a glam gangsta lifestyle, living in a single room powered by a car battery. The lives of men like him and his friends tend toward the brief and violent.
After a subway robbery turns deadly, one of his cronies turns on him, accusing him of going too far, asking Tsotsi the sorts of questions better left unasked, questions about his family, his past and his sense of decency. All the simmering rage finally boils to the top, and the teenage gangster savagely beats down his friend before dashing off into the rainy night. Before he knows it, he’s run into a middle-class neighborhood and, seeing an opportunity to get out of the rain, carjacks a woman who’s stepped out of her vehicle. When she comes at him in a panic, he shoots her and tears off into the night. It’s only later that he discovers why she put up such a fight—her baby boy is battened down in the back seat. Once he’s stripped the car of its valuables, he finally grabs the little boy in an uncharacteristic fit of conscience, placing him in a large paper bag and heading off to the township.
Of course, a young gangster is ill prepared to take care of a baby, but writer/director Gavin Hood stays away from most of the Three Men and a Baby clichés—Tsotsi’s diaper incompetence isn’t funny; it’s terribly sad. He knows nothing about childcare, leaving the boy alone for hours on end, finally in desperation going so far as to hold Miriam (Terry Pheto), a young single mother, at gunpoint to force her to breastfeed the child.
Now, children have a strange effect on adults. They force you to confront things about yourself you might not want to deal with. They are relentless and exhausting and wonderful. In Tsotsi’s case, he finally must look at his own shattered childhood and decide what to do with this child, who has only our young criminal to depend on, and that is simply not enough.
Hood anchors Tsotsi with a deep, well-nuanced performance from Chweneyagae, whose conscience stunted, is struggling to find something unidentifiable within himself. It isn’t easy and it shows. Chweneyagae’s portrayal is subtle and infused with childlike innocence. After a young lifetime of disappointment, hardship and violence, Tsotsi’s veneer cracks, ever so slightly, as Miriam feeds the young child, and it’s a joy to see.
The film’s violence is visceral and casual, anything but alluring or exciting. As an audience, we want no part of it. In this world, Tsotsi is attempting to find his sense of decency, trying at long last to do the right thing, but without a clue as to how to go about it. In this case, the right thing to do is to make sure the baby gets back to his family—but Tsotsi may see too much of his own redemption in the little boy to let go of him.
Lance Gewer’s cinematography drains the township of much of its color, giving the film a hot, dusty feeling. A pulsing, banging soundtrack of South African kwaito music, highlighted by several tracks from Zola (who also plays the local crime boss), keeps the tempo up and the tension palpable.
Ultimately, Tsotsi is a film about decency. Who is decent and what it means to be decent are questions that are asked but remain mostly unanswered. But that’s the thing about doing the right thing—in Tsotsi’s case, his attempts to attain decency are the core of the film, but it’s up to each viewer to decide if his efforts can make up for a lifetime of heinous misdeeds.
TSOTSI ( * * * ½ )
Directed by Gavin Hood • Starring Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto and Mothusi Magano. • (R, 94 min.) • At the Osio Cinemas.