(2005, Gavin Hood)
“Decency? Do you know the word?”
Tsotsi is a movie from the emerging South African cinema movement. Taking its story from the streets of the impoverished townships left over from Apartheid, we follow the titular Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyegae) through the days that change his life forever.
You see, Tsotsi is a nickname, meaning thug, and this is what he is. Along with his friends he likes to attack and rob innocent residents of the nearby communities. Due to growing up on the streets and receiving no education, he doesn’t know any other way to live his life, at least until the day he steals a woman’s car, inadvertently kidnapping her baby at the same time. Through the baby, he gains a sense of humanity and slowly begins to reform and question the moral choices in his life up to this point.
The movie’s lead is initially a very unsympathetic character. He says little, and his actions are mindless acts of intimidation and violence. But as the movie progresses, we get a little more insight into what led him to this life – his troubled childhood, his feral upbringing, his lack of education – and we gain more sympathy for him, and as he reforms, we connect with him more. In addition, Chweneyegae is a fantastic actor, expressing himself mostly through minimal body language and facial expressions. It’s impressive to see him bring the character to life so subtly.
However, the character development is minimal. We only really see one major snapshot of Tsotsi’s old home life and never really discover why he ended up living on the streets away from his family. Everything else is through jump-cuts which flash up during emotional scenes. However, this does work at showing us the direct emotional connection between his past and his current emotional reactions, particularly his reaction to finding the baby in the stolen car and his willingness to care for it despite being so heartless otherwise.
Scenes with Miriam, the mother that Tsotsi “recruits” to help him care for the baby are also particularly impressive. The quality of the acting here is fantastic, and Chweneyegae and Terry Pheto very naturally working off one another. Miriam is scared but sympathetic, while Tsotsi is confused, and it’s this mixture of emotion that makes the scenes work so well.
What works less well are the scenes with an old disabled homeless man that Tsotsi meets in the subway station. He follows the man and confronts him, accusing him of faking his disability. These scenes feel very disconnected from the rest of the movie, and while they aid in demonstrating Tsotsi’s emotional journey, they are still very out of place in the context of everything else, and in such a short movie, these scenes almost get in the way of everything else.
Overall, Tsotsi is a great example of an emerging film scene, demonstrating that South Africa has plenty of interesting stories to tell. It’s a little rough around the edges, but ultimately is a good, moving story of how people can change.
Starring Presley Chweneyegae, Terry Pheto, Kenneth Nkosi, Mothusi Magano, Zenzo Ngqobe, Rapulana Seiphemo & Nambitha Npumlwana
Written by Athol Fugard (novel) & Gavin Hood
Produced by Peter Fudakowski
Music score by Paul Hepker & Mark Kilian
Cinematography by Lance Gewan
Edited by Megan Gill
Favourite Scene: The second time Tsotsi goes to visit Miriam, there’s a shifting in tone. Miriam appears more relaxed and seems to steal control of the whole situation from Tsotsi. It’s really effective.
Scene That Bugged Me: Tsotsi stalks the homeless man and there’s a scene culminates in him kicking over the man’s change box. None of it really seems to fit with the overarching plot.
Watch it if: You want to see what South African cinema is capable of
Avoid it if: You’re confused by the fact the movie’s in three languages. Yes, three
Originally posted on Blogspot Wednesday 11 January 2012