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TSOTSI(director/writer: Gavin Hood; screenwriter: based on the novel by Athol Fugard; cinematographer: Lance Gewer; editor: Megan Gill; music: Mark Kilian and Paul Hepker/with the featured vocalist Vusi Mahlasela; cast: Presley Chweneyagae (Tsotsi), Terry Pheto (Miriam), Kenneth Nkosi (Aap), Mothusi Magano (Boston), Zenzo Ngqobe (Butcher), Rapulana Seiphemo (John Dube), Nambitha Mpumlwana (Pumla Dube), Ian Roberts (Captain Smit); Runtime: 94; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Peter Fudakowski; Miramax Films; 2005-South Africa-in Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans with English subtitles)
“A chance for the stay-at-home world-travelers to catch sight of Johannesburg’s filthy sprawling township of Soweto.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Tsotsi, meaning “thug” in the street language of South Africa’s townships, is based on the only novel South African playwright Athol Fugard ever wrote. It was written in 1961 (but set in the 1950s during apartheid, while the film takes place in the post-apartheid present) and sadly covers the white author’s same themes he covers in his plays about how the poor and downtrodden blacks are continually beaten down. Writer-director Gavin Hood’s thin story is given an artistic brushup but has little more to say about a sociopathic gangster eventually seeking redemption over a six-day crime spree, who is humanized by being compared to a helpless baby he kidnapped and carries around in a shopping bag, than any of those B film Warner Brother crime thrillers from back in the day. You know, the old tale of woe about a poor childhood upbringing and no one in society who gives a crap. There’s not much more to this tale than that and a chance for the stay-at-home world-travelers to catch sight of Johannesburg’s filthy sprawling township of Soweto, filled with the poor living in corrugated-metal shacks, as much a breeding ground for crime as any of America’s ghettos. How one gets the film all hinges on the ruthless gangster characterization by Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae), who has mood swings from monster brute to a bully looking for love but he never changes his one expression no matter the circumstance. If you can take his bloody crime spree, the many closeups of him, look past all those innocents the thug hurt, not judge him and find something to move you in a story that’s so obvious then you have been pulled into the story the way Hood hoped you would be. The Academy liked it so much it named it as its Best Foreign Film of 2005 (which puts it on the same mantelpiece as all those other middlebrow artsy foreign films that were also recently honored in the same way).

In this unpleasant bleak tale, we watch the titular protagonist and the small gang he’s the de facto leader of —Boston (Mothusi Magano), Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe) and Aap (Kenneth Nkosi)–needlessly stab a well-dressed black man to death with a sharp spike in a crowded rush-hour subway as they rob him. Then Tsotsi pummels nearly to death one of his more sensitive street boys, Boston, because the drunken lad questioned the murder and grilled the boss man a little too much about why he hates so much. Tsotsi runs out of the bar and in the swell part of town (no shacks here), in front of a gated house, in a driving rain, he commits a car-jacking of a BMW and when the rich lady (Nambitha Mpumlwana) objects shoots her in the gut and soon finds there’s a baby in the car. Our hero decides to keep the child and we flashback to his childhood, and learn his grim history of how as a youngster he ran away from a cruel dog-kicking father who kept him away from his dying of AIDS mom and he thereby lived on the streets in a pipe. These flashbacks are supposed to make us understand why he kept the child. His way of taking care of the baby is to force his neighbor at gunpoint, a pretty young widow (Terry Pheto) with a child, to breast feed the baby boy. Tsotsi then regroups with his gang and returns to his vic’s gated house to rob them, and while there learns the woman he shot will never walk again.

By the end, the angry-looking 19-year-old thug is given the full treatment of going from numero uno monster to just another immature innocent with lots of blood on his hands who needs someone to surrender to so society can breathe a little easier as he stops choosing if he needs to kill or love someone. What never comes into play, which should have, is the political situation causing the wide gulf between the rich and poor. Street punks like Tsotsi are unfortunately in a plentiful supply in the modern world, and this cautionary typical studio-like crime story is just not that interesting or powerful or meaningful (at least, in how it was presented here–even if such a monster was given a human face and a Sociology 101 explanation for his existence).


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”