©2006 Miramax Films
Presley Chweneyagae as Tsotsi in TSOTSI. Photo Credits: Blid Alsbirk and Miramax Films.

A man is stabbed on a train and robbed. Behind the young gangbangers who attacked him hangs one of many AIDS awareness posters you’ll find in South Africa, as a constant reminder of the advice going unheeded by many of Africa’s (and the world’s) youth—ever oblivious to dangers that aren’t immediately staring them in the face.

The main character is David (Presley Chweneyagae), who goes by the nickname Tsotsi—”thug” in his native language. At the local shebeen (unlicensed liquor establishment) run by their friend Soekie (Thembi Nyandeni), we find Tsotsi and his friends, the portly and thus requisitely imbecilic Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), and Boston (Mothusi Magano)—a failed schoolteacher. The gang is rounded out by the unpredictably violent Butcher (Zenzo Nggobe), who presents significant danger in their modus operandi.

Boston is tiring of their routine, and sickened by what he calls a lack of decency, “You know the word, ‘Decency?” Boston provokes Tsotsi to discuss his past; Tsotsi, feeling intimidated by the line of questioning, assaults Boston and runs out of the bar to escape his own thoughts.

Afterward, Tsotsi robs a woman of her car and shoots her, in front of her own home. Not being a skilled driver, he crashes the vehicle only to realize from the sound of crying that there’s a baby in the car. Tsotsi, having abandoned his ailing mother in fear of his drunk, abusive father, grew up as an orphan on the streets of Soweto. This background, the details of which I’m reserving as they reveal a key element in Tsotsi’s intellectual growth, becomes relevant as Tsotsi is confronted with the choice of what to do now that he has unwittingly kidnapped an infant.

Tsotsi’s first inclination is to pack the baby in a bag and dump him, but he cannot bring himself to do it. Instead, he ditches the car and takes the baby back to his shanty town living quarters. So far we know little of the details of Tsotsi’s background, thus we must infer his reasoning as the story continues to unfold. This is a more intelligent form of storytelling than I’ve seen on film in a long time. The film persuades the viewer to contemplate Tsotsi’s motivations as we gain insights regarding his character along the way.

Initially, Tsotsi is not so much determined to care for the child as he seems to be caught in over his head, looking for an interim solution until he figures out what exactly he’s going to do. Of course, the interim solution also has the effect of raising his awareness of aspects to life beyond simply his thug existence. As with any social circle, however, his friends are disconcerted by the demonstrable inconsistency of his behavior: once running the jobs, now retreating into his hole of a residence—encouraging the blindly devoted Aap to start thinking and acting for himself.

Tsotsi returns to the metro station where his gang normally stages their robberies in the anonymity of the crowded train cars. Nearly tripping over the leg of a homeless man in a wheelchair, the man spits on him. Tsotsi follows him into an alley, and draws a gun. However, instead of shooting, Tsotsi recalls, “I saw a dog once. Two kicks and his back was broken.”

“What kind of a man kicks a dog?” replies the homeless man. This underscores Tsotsi’s impression of what he has become. His face ashen from confronting the truth, Tsotsi retreats from the man. Note that Tsotsi typically has a completely dead look in his eyes, all emotion either banished or drained from him. The casting of Chweneyagae was ideal in this regard, because it’s ironic to see such lifelessness in a face otherwise youthful in appearance.

Tsotsi’s realm of thought is broadened greatly by his interaction with a young mother, Miriam (Terry Pheto), whom he follows home in search of food and clothing for the baby, whose soiled diapers have now been replaced with newsprint. There he forces Miriam to breastfeed the baby, threatening to shoot her if she refuses.

As an example of contrasting the usage of violence in film. this act differs from another which bears only superficial similarities—a rather graphic violation in “The Hills Have Eyes.” The difference is, here the violent act has a context with meaning.

Tsotsi returns occasionally to Miriam for supplies, food and other help with the baby. He becomes inquisitive about a number of things, including the art that Miriam makes. Looking at some hanging chimes made by Miriam, he asks, “Why is it rusted?” She replies, “I was sad.” The other sculpture next to it is made of colored glass. He doesn’t understand the appeal of such a thing. She tells him to look at the colored light shining on his body.

When Miriam willingly offers—out of genuine concern—to raise the child, it’s then that Tsotsi begins to understand Boston’s point about decency. In a lesser movie, there might be some twisted subplot about some strange harm befalling the baby, or a betrayal between Tsotsi and Miriam. In this movie there are few if any such contrivances (certainly none that linger in the mind). The story relies not on cheap, last-minute surprises, but chiefly on thoughtfully-crafted character development, human interaction and accumulated learning — not miraculous turnabout.

In fact, every time I anticipated the film might turn south and resort to cliché plot developments, it avoided that systematically. Tsotsi’s revelation doesn’t become a cheap trick by which he suddenly and instantly goes clean. He employs unethical street tactics in order to meet his ends even while attempting to right his wrongs. This reflects that learning is not tantamount to sudden revelation and abrupt change, but that, realistically, people extrapolate and learn in little steps.

This holds true for Tsotsi as much as it does for the upper middle class family from whom the car was stolen. Their primary concern is simply to have their child returned safely. Typically, a Hollywood production of this kind would have that family in utter hysterics, with the father taking as foolhardy a macho stance as the screenwriters can come up with. The father in this case is tempted, as he insists the police must do everything in their power. The mother only thinks of her child. Vengeance is of no use in the equation, and it often results in more harm than good.

Several fates rest with Tsotsi, but here it is he who feels the weight of that reality. Regardless of the consequences, it might be wiser in the long run for Tsotsi to back out of this proposition safely. Life from here onward will require more critical thinking than to which he is accustomed. Part of that reality slaps him in the face when, visiting a makeshift colony of orphans, he realizes there is only one way to mitigate the vicious cycle of abandonment and desperation.

For a thug, Tsotsi is very soft spoken — which is to say Thug is a vocation that doesn’t suit him. Reading some of the message boards on IMDB, I get the impression that life in South Africa can be far more difficult and dangerous than this movie implies. However, the director wisely narrows the focus down to a select group of people. Where a film like this succeeds in conveyance of a message over an inferior work—e.g. “Crash”—is that the focus is kept on telling a story, first and foremost, in which the lessons are self-evident, and not artificially inflated by diametrically-opposed characters or an extremely improbable chain of events.

As the film draws to a close, and the audience is in clear understanding that, while a justice has been done there is no undoing the wrongs for which Tsotsi is accountable, I found the film so entirely satisfying and substantial that I thought, “Ok, I got it all… Now, fade out.” Unlike many recent filmgoing experiences, the director knew exactly when to roll the credits. The film concludes without insulting the audience’s ability to infer both the outcome and the meaning. The afterthought is left to our imagination. Without cheap deceptions, clever editing, plot conveniences or overt exposition, the film pulls you in and keeps you there on the merit of the story’s substance.

Tsotsi • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Running Time: 94 minutes • MPAA Rating: R for language and some strong violent content. • Distributed by Miramax Films

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