Written by Gavin Hood, based on the novel by Athol Fugard
Directed by Gavin Hood
Starring Presley Chweneyagae, Mothusi Magano, Israel Makoe, Percy Matsemela, Jerry Mofokeng
My Advice: Don’t miss it.
Lately, Hollywood has made scores of films made about murderers, robbers and reprobates who find redemption and salvation. However none of these blockbusters measure up to Tsotsi–a moving independent film from South Africa. Winner of an Academy Award and several film festivals, the film is both deeply upsetting and uplifting. It’s one of those grimy films, much like 2002’s City of God, that relies on the power of the visual image to tell story.
Set over a period of six days, it’s an emotionally transforming story of a tough-as-nails Soweto gang leader on the lamb after killing a man on a crowded bus and then beating up a repentant gang member in a sweaty, dank and dark Soweto club. While on the run, he commandeers a car and shoots the female driver. After the carjacking he looks in the back seat and discovers the woman’s child in the backseat, thus embroiling him in the most difficult of positions for a gangster.
In order to avoid detection, Tsotsi must look after the child in secrecy. His initial attempts at child-rearing are meet with comical and tragic results. Consumed with panic, Tsotsi turns to Miriam, a widowed mother for help. Over the next several days Miriam and Tsotsi form a bond that leads Tsotsi into strange new emotional territory. If that were not enough, he must also fend off Sergeant Zuma, a brutally obsessively cop who will stop at nothing to reel Tsotsi in. It is these two conflicts–the conflict with the law and the conflict within him–that leads Tsotsi down the difficult road of self-discovery and redemption.
Presley Chweneyagae is astonishing in his breakout performance as Tsotsi. From the outset, Tsotsi is a man filled with rage, dashed hopes and a bleak future, a fact prolifically underscored by Chweneyagae’s anguished facial emotions and quiet angry stares. Chweneyagae is the emotional and physical powerhouse that propels the film.
Terry Pheto plays Miriam, the Soweto mother who helps Tsotsi nurture the baby while injecting common sense into his thick skull. Since Miriam is one of the catalysts for Tsotsi’s redemption, a great deal of the film’s emotional resonance lies in the hands of Pheto. Fortunately she does a terrific job of making her character shine like a diamond beneath the grit of Soweto’s rough streets.
Like any good film, Tsotsi’s success lay in the vision of its director. Writer/director Hood takes the crime-filled ghettos of a post-Apartheid Johannesburg and transforms them into townships of hope and salvation. His brilliant direction and tight script helped the film garner the 2005 Academy Award for best foreign film.
Tsotsi is well acted, crisply directed and visually stunning triumph of cinema. This rough and ready tale of rage and redemption is just one of the reasons why South Africa has recently been touted as the new “hot spot” of world cinema.