March 9-15, 2006
On the streets of the new South Africa.
It's not like he has many options. Tsotsi and his crew Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), Aap (Kenneth Nkosi) and Boston (Mothusi Magano) live in Soweto, where they deal drugs, steal and scavenge to get by. For their evening's work, they head to the train station, in search of someone to rob. En route, they pass public service posters that warn against AIDS ("HIV affects us all"), a detail that marks a change from the film's source, Athol Fugard's 1980 novel, which was set in the 1950s. Gavin Hood's film takes place in a harsh, amorphous now. This shift underlines the persistence of risks in the South African townships: The particular danger may shift, but hopelessness and fury go on.
Tsotsi and his boys take their frustration out on their mark, a man who keeps his valuables in an easily accessible pocket. Gathering round him on a crowded train, they lift his money, and then the job goes wrong: Butcher gets reckless, stabbing the man with an ice pick, right up under his ribs, so he dies quietly, unnoticed by the other train riders. The combined brutality and carelessness of the act is stunning, as the boys count their bills and head off to a local pub. Here they begin to argue. When Boston accuses Tsotsi whose name means "thug" of losing any sense of "decency," he erupts, smashing Boston's face repeatedly before their friends can pull him off.
Partly horrified, partly angry, Tsotsi runs into the night, where he finds his ostensible fate in a BMW he carjacks while the driver (Nambitha Mpumlwana) waits for her gate to open. She fights him hard for her vehicle too hard, it seems, until he gets down the road and discovers her infant in the back seat. Abruptly, Tsotsi has strange new options.
His choice to keep the baby and leave the car changes everything and nothing. Loading the baby into a shopping bag, Tsotsi traverses the wide emptiness between the highway and the shantytown. At home a shack with a sheet metal door he keeps chained shut with a padlock he feeds the baby condensed milk from a can, diapers it with newspaper and leaves it in the bag under his bed while he goes out cruising for new trouble. When he returns to find the filthy baby covered in ants, he suddenly confronts a consequence of a decision he's made.
He also begins to see himself mirrored in his self-claimed mini-me, underlined by some obvious devices. Flashbacks to his tragic childhood provide unnecessarily broad symbolism not only does his mother (Sindi Shambule) die of AIDS, but his father (Israel Makoe) kicks dogs and a grim encounter with a crippled man (Jerry Mofokeng) shows Tsotsi's first experience of guilt. His relationship with the child is rendered in images that emphasize 19-year-old Tsotsi's limited vision. From his doorway, he spots Miriam (Terry Pheto) at the market, her own baby tied to her back as she waits to buy food. Tsotsi arrives on Miriam's doorstep and makes her breast-feed "his" baby at gunpoint, while hers lies beside her on the bed, touching at the visitor, welcoming and curious. Tsotsi watches, gun in his lap, transfixed.
Tsotsi's continued grappling with the baby's needs makes him seem sympathetic, especially as Butcher provides an increasingly cruel opposite. The winner of this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Tsotsi's earnestness and occasional awkwardness are assuaged by Lance Gewer's sharply affecting cinematography and Chweneyagae's remarkable (first-time) performance. What the film overstates in narrative, it makes poignant in imagery. When Tsotsi tries to give the baby away to homeless children closer to its age, he visits them in their nowhereland of drainage pipes on the outskirts of town, where he used to live. As he holds out the baby in a bag, this next scrawny generation stares at Tsotsi as if he's crazy: What do they want with this unformed, unthreatening, precious life? They need to look out for their own.
It's a small moment that suggests how kids' lives become irrelevant, out of control, lost. The middle-class parents suffer and seethe, Tsotsi learns a hard lesson and viewers can feel better for all of it. But it's worth remembering the kids in the pipes, who show up only for this instant and then vanish again, bits of narrative background, tossed like dice into a distressing void. They are the film's focus, however unseen.
Tsotsi Written and directed by Gavin Hood A Miramax release. Opens Fridat at Ritz Five