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The Independent Critic

Presley Chwenegeyae, Terry Pheto, Mothusi Magano, Kenneth Nkosi
Gavin Hood
Gavin Hood, Athol Fugard
Rated R
94 Mins.

 "Tsotsi" Review 
In a shantytown of Soweto Township on the edges of Johannesburg, South Africa, Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) lives and breathes by the fear he instills in others. Tsotsi, literally translated meaning "thug" in his South African ghetto dialect, is a 19-year-old who was orphaned at an early age. He has repressed memories of this painful childhood to the point that he cannot remember even his own birth name...he is, by all accounts, a thug with no regard for human life.

"Tsotsi," the film, cries out with passionate regard for human life in this emotionally raw, compelling story of hope, redemption, respect and the search for humanity when all of life is utterly inhumane. Writer/director Gavin Hood's "Tsotsi" is based upon a novel by award-winning writer Athol Fugard. Hood has changed Fugard's 50's setting and placed "Tsotsi" in contemporary South Africa, revealing an even more powerful and politically revealing portrait of the heartbreakingly painful realities of life in modern day South Africa.

As played by Chweneyagae, Tsotsi has grown into a young man who practically screams out his lifetime of social and emotional neglect. Chweneyagae, a newcomer to feature films, is mesmerizing from his first moments onscreen and hypnotic even with sharing the screen with a young infant.

Tsotsi leads a young group of seemingly wannabe gangsters who feed his rage. There is Boston (Mothusi Mogano), an intellectual whose alcohol-driven failings can't hide his essential decency despite his inability to ever sit for the teaching license exam for which he qualifies. There's the ever loyal Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), whose longtime companionship with Tsotsi is done as much out of fear as anything. Finally, there is Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), a young man who most mirrors Tsotsi with his unquenchable thirst for violence. Together, these young men spend their days stealing, harassing, assault and, yes, even killing to satisfy their impulses and their seemingly beyond control emotional needs.

We are introduced to these young men as they find an easy mark in a public train station in Johannesburg. They follow this elderly man onto the train and, even surrounded by a crowded train car, are able to rob and tragically assault the man. It is is without is ever so brief. It is, however, deeply and painfully revealing.

"Tsotsi" has been compared to Fernando Meirelles' "City of God," a critically praised portrayal of street life in Brazil that carries many similar themes. The film, in reality, often plays like a cross between that film, last year's remarkable "Hotel Rwanda" and, oddly enough, the even more remarkable "Shawshank Redemption."

After these young men so brazenly attack the elderly man on the train, they are gathered a local shebeen (illegal liquor bar). Boston, whose violent inner reaction to the vicious assault has led to harassment by his "posse," is harassing Tsotsi himself with questions about decency, humanity, his past and, even more basically, demanding to know his real name. As the questions become more persistent and intense, you can feel the rage and despair boiling up in Tsotsi, who clearly has no concept of how to deal with such feelings. In a violent rage, Tsotsi viciously beats Boston and flees to the hills outside South Africa in a pouring rain.

It is here where the story of "Tsotsi" shifts focus. The young man sees yet another easy mark. He eyes a young, middle-class woman struggling to enter her gated home due to a faulty remote control opener. She steps out of the car to call her husband on the intercom. While out, Tsotsi draws his weapon and begins stealing her car. She fights him viciously and, again, Tsotsi shoots her without hesitation not realizing the purpose for her fevered resistance.

The "purpose," however, reveals itself only a few miles down the road as Tsotsi hears the gentle cries of a 3-month-old infant in the back seat. He instantly wrecks the car, tries to strip it and tries, in vain, to abandon the infant in the car. He simply cannot do it. Suddenly, he is able to remember his own abandonment. He simply cannot abandon this young child, perhaps the first human being who Tsotsi cannot question has never wronged him.

Hood's script does not sugarcoat Tsotsi. It does not attempt to instantly remake him into a deeply compassionate human being or even one remotely versed in the act of parenting. His initial interactions with the young infant are frightening in their potential for harm to the child. Even when he is trying desperately to make the right choice for this young child, Tsotsi inevitably makes the wrong choice. One scene, in particular, will be disturbing to the viewer as the baby is nearly irreparably harmed by Tsotsi's own ignorance.

Yet, all of these scenes feel deeply authentic. When one begins a healing journey, any healing journey, it is not an overnight change or an instantly manifested healing. A child who is physically or sexually abused, for example, doesn't simply learn overnight how to communicate, be intimate, experience healthy relationships or, even more simply, love without hurting or being hurt. It is a process, a journey of mistakes and mishaps. Tsotsi's journey is a journey of remembering his own childhood devastation and, slowly, realizing its impact on the decisions he has made in his life.

Realizing that he cannot adequately even feed the child, he eyes Miriam (Terry Pheto)at a well. She is carrying her own young infant. He follows her and, at gunpoint, forces her to nurse this young infant under his care. Over time, it is this practically unspoken relationship that will open Tsotsi's eyes to his own failings and his own responsibilities and accountability.

"Tsotsi" is, towards the end, a film of little moments that connect in grand ways. With his "posse", Tsotsi returns to the home where he stole the car and, unknowingly, the child. Masked behind the bravado of a simple robbery, Tsotsi merely wants to steal the baby's things. When the simple robbery becomes one of violence, Tsotsi stops Butcher from killing the man he knows is the baby's father. It is a scene both reveals his growing humanity and the violent impulse he still cannot control.

There's no sugarcoated ending in "Tsotsi." The ending is one of sadness, resignation and glimpses of hope. Hood's script doesn't forget the ethics of being human. Tsotsi, the young man, has been transformed by the act of giving and receiving unconditional love, but he is a young man whose actions will require consequences. Hood's ability to direct these scenes in such a way to reveal the transformation into humanity along with the inevitable consequences to follow is filmmaking at its absolute finest.

In a just world, Chweneyagae would have been a nominee for Best Actor for his performance as Tsotsi. It, most certainly, is among the finest performances of 2005. Cheweneyagae's Tsotsi is a young man of rage and fear and pain and mesmerizing beauty. Quite simply, it is a magnificent performance.

Yet, every performance here is stellar and rings of truth, most notably the quiet and dignified performance of Pheto as the widowed mother along with the performances of Tsotsi's posse. Hood wisely utilizes South African kwaito music (hip-hop) in balancing the often intense, desperate tone with an undertone of energy and hope. The film, actually shot in Soweto Township and Johannesburg, features camera work that is gritty and revealing of the truth of life in South Africa. We see the shantytowns and steel barrels in which people often live. They are designed sets, yes, yet they are also everyday life for many South Africans.

"Tsotsi" captured the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It was released in time to qualify for the Academy Awards, but is just now going into a slightly wider release. It is one of only a handful of films where I have, quite literally, forgotten that it is a foreign film. I found myself completely surrendered to the characters and the actions onscreen that language barriers have became irrelevant.

So often, film-makers get it wrong when creating films centering around violence. They make the films about the violence itself. Thus, these films often become nothing more than stylized reproductions of vicious acts. Gavin Hood's "Tsotsi," however, transcends this style of film-making and ends up becoming the ultimate thriller. "Tsotsi" is a film that looks graphically behind the eyes of violence and ultimately discovers the wounded heart of humanity.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic