"Why does this movie work? Location, location, location."
If Gavin Hood’s Oscar-winning film “Tsotsi” were set in suburban America and featured name actors, audiences would find it unbearably sentimental and clichéd. But by placing the tale in contemporary Soweto and Johannesburg, South Africa, Hood imbues the film with a sense of authenticity that makes the movie seem more moving than manipulative.In fact, the novel by Athol Fugard that Hood has adapted for the film dates back to 1960. Somehow, Hood and his cast make the story relevant and even urgent.
The title character (played with astonishing skill by relative novice Presley Chweneyagae) easily lives up to his moniker, which means thug or gangster in Zulu. In a single evening, he does nothing when his aptly named pal Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe) stabs a fellow they’ve been mugging to death. Tsotsi later beats his partner in crime named Boston (Mothusi Magano) so badly that the latter may be scarred for life.
Whereas most gangsters might end their evening at that point, Tsotsi wanders into a suburb of Johannesburg and steals a wealthy woman’s car and shoots her as she gets away.
His spree comes to an abrupt end when he discovers the woman’s baby is still in the car’s back seat. From here, Tsotsi gradually develops a conscience and takes a difficult path toward resolving the situation. To keep the setup credible, Hood presents the bleak squalor of township life with an unflinching eye. He also wisely ends the tale on an ambiguous note. Tsotsi may be on a path away from wickedness, but his life and the lives of the others he encounters won’t get any easier.
The early sequences of “Tsotsi” present the violence in his world in brief but shocking detail. As a result, it’s easier to believe what happens later. Hood also creates a convincing back story that illustrates how Tsotsi could fall so easily.
Good acting doesn’t hurt either. Chweneyagae effortlessly moves from being a cold-eyed criminal to staring in wonder at the baby in front of him. Terry Pheto is terrific as a single mother whom Tsotsi recruits at gunpoint to help him take care of the child. She becomes a surrogate mother to both the baby and the gangster who abducted him.
Israel Makoe deserves special credit for convincingly playing what has to be one of the most sadistically terrifying fathers in screen history.The film also boasts a great soundtrack full of tunes that fit the action nicely, but the most admirable trait of “Tsotsi” is that its sentimental moments earn every emotion they are designed to elicit.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Portland Film Festival For more in the 2006 Portland Film Festival series, click here.