Review Date: 4/5/06
What are the limits of brokenness? When does damage, physical or psychological, become irreparable? And where are the borders of forgiveness? These are among the questions you may be asking yourself after watching the beautiful South African film Tsotsi.
For KUSP’s Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.
Tsotsi is the story of a young man compelled by chance, circumstance, and his own willfully bad behavior, to confront his past and come to grips with the unpalatable present.
The word “tsotsi” is patois for thug or small time gangster. In this film the lead character is so cut off from his past that he is known only as “Tsotsi”, with a capital T. He’s top dog in a four dog pack of hoodlums. They earn their living opportunistically. We witness a particularly brutal crime in the Johannesburg subway. This happens early in the film and writer/director Gavin Hood makes no attempt to romanticize it. In fact, the crime is so egregious that even the notion of redemption, at this point, would seem beyond the pale.
Later that evening, at a tavern frequented by miscreants, one of the gang members, a contemplative fellow named Boston, in a guilt ridden and drunken stupor, taunts Tsotsi. What is your real name, he asks the hardened young boss. Tsotsi answers by beating Boston’s face to a bloody pulp, after which he runs out of the bar and into the night. At this point, an astonishing piece of editing by Megan Gill provides a glimpse into Tsotsi’s past. The flashback ends when Tsotsi, having run aimlessly across a ‘no man’s land’ between the shanty town and a wealthy suburb of the city, finds himself within a stone’s throw of a gated residence.
One short car theft later, a major plot device enters the story. No doubt some critics will think it a too convenient gimmick. But I bought it, every frame of the way. Each of our lives is touched, occasionally, by an unlikely event. And each of these events bears within it the opportunity for change and unanticipated choice. How Tsotsi responds to his chance moment drives the film all the way to its harrowing conclusion.
South Africa is not many years removed from the horrors of apartheid. The unspeakable brutalities endured by indigenous South Africans at the hands of the heavily armed white minority might have resulted in reactive bloodshed of vast proportion. But under the humane leadership of Nelson Mandela, South Africa chose the now famous path of “truth and reconciliation”.
Think of Tsotsi as a variation on that theme. The analogy is hardly exact. This is not the story of South Africa’s recent history writ small. But the film does invite us to consider issues of justice and redemption and condign punishment.
Tsotsi earned an Oscar for best foreign film. And while I continue to believe that by and large the Academy Awards are a crock of hype, I can’t argue with this choice.
The performance of Presley Chweneyagae as Tsotsi is remarkable. It’s his first time in a feature film. In fact, there are no big name actors in this film, a calculated choice by the producers and the director designed to provide the movie with verisimilitude. It worked.
Tsotsi will open this weekend at The Nickelodeon Theatre in downtown Santa Cruz.
It’s a wonderful movie, fully deserving of the many international awards it’s won.