South Africa (2005) Dir. Gavin Hood

In the slums of Johannesburg, a gang of thugs – leader Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae), slow witted Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), smart guy Boston (Mothusi Magano) and trigger happy Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe) – mug a man on a train but it goes wrong when Butcher kills the victim. Tstotsi and Boston get into a fight with Boston badly beaten and Tsotsi running off in a fit of rage. He ends up far away and in the pouring rain, decides to steal a car from a rich wife Pumla (Nambitha Mpumlwana) as she pulls up in her drive way. When she resists Tsotsi shoots her and drives off only to later discover a baby strapped up on the back seat. In a panic Tsotsi takes the baby back to his little shack but has no clue how to look after the poor tot, forcing the thug into making some unforeseen changes in his life.

By virtue of the fact this film also features gangs of young black criminal men who live and die by the gun has earned Tsotsi comparison to Brazil’s excellent City Of God – but that is really where the similarities end. This adaptation of Athol Fugard’s novel does have its share of violence but only in small doses. Instead this is a tale of a lost young man whose painful childhood begat his violent and maverick lifestyle yet his yearning for that lost idyllic family unit forces him to re-evaluate the worth of a human life.

Tsotsi is an unapologetic thug who thinks nothing of stealing money from a crippled man and regards everyone with a cold stare and shows little remorse after the killing of their mugging victim. But when a drunken and upset Boston brings up Tsotsi’s mother it is clear a nerve had been touched and he receives a near crippling beating for his loose words. So how does this remorseless monster evolve into a caring surrogate parent? The answer is slowly and exponentially.

At first he is as clueless as one can be, keeping the baby inside a large paper shopping bag and using newspaper to make a nappy. When he leaves the baby with an open tin of condensed milk he returns to find its face covered in ants! This is your definitive “Non-parenting Guide 101”. Thankfully Tsotsi spots a young mother Miriam (Terry Pheto) who he enlists – at gunpoint of course – to help look after the baby. This she does, eventually taking the baby in completely until Tsotsi’s police photofit picture makes the papers forcing his hand.

Tsotsi may be a polished looking film, free from hand held camera shots and grainy, sweaty depictions of the Jo’Burg slums to make it a gritty work, but the engine of this film is its story. This is a tale of redemption, lost youth and the effects of life and death and the superbly glossy presentation doesn’t lessen the power of its central themes one iota. We learn through a dream sequence flashback that Tsotsi is a product of his environment, being denied the chance to be close to his sick mother by his bullying father forcing the young lad to run away from home and grow up on the streets.

With the baby’s presence in his life Tsotsi is forced to grow up fast and just watching Miriam breastfeeding the baby and the way she carries on with her life for the sake of her child after her husband was killed by thugs from the slums like Tsotsi puts everything into perspective for him. From these interactions Tsotsi recognises that he has gone from a child denied his mother’s love to the one denying a child its mother’s love but he can’t bear to part with the little chap.

Gavin Hood not only provides us with an eye opening look into life in South Africa but does so by coaxing some sublime performances from his then inexperienced cast. The interestingly named Presley Chweneyagae literally grows before our eyes taking Tsotsi from a cold hearted villain to an honourable young man without resorting to overt dramatics or signposting these changes to the viewer. Terry Pheto manages to embody the requisite humane qualities of a caring and devoted mother while remaining a strong leveller in the midst of the chaos surrounding her and Mothusi Magano deserves a note for his portrayal of the clever but alcohol dependant Boston who spends most of the film having to philosophise with a rearranged face.

Tsotsi is a film that takes the viewer on a moral and emotional journey of self development and hope, and does so in a visually arresting manner befitting the captivating performances contained within. If this is a sample of cinema currently coming out of South Africa then we should all be very excited.

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