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Brandon Judell

Tsotsi: A Thug with a Heart of Gold

Writer/Director: Gavin Hood
Producer: Peter Fudakowski
Director of Photography: Lance Gewer
Sound Mixer: Shaun Murdoch
Cast: Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto, Kenneth Nkosi, Mothusi Magano, Zenzo Ngqobe,Thembi Nyandeni, Tumi Sejake


In "King Kong," a beast turns all cuddly when a blonde morsel of food starts doing its vaudeville act, cartwheels and juggling included. In "Tsotsi," South Africa's nominee for Best Foreign Language Oscar, a heartless, baby-faced monster finds his humanity when a baby he's accidentally kidnapped craps in its diapers.

Consider this "City of God" Lite. But please note that "City of God" Lite is still pretty heavy.

Based upon an Athol Fugard novel, the action takes place in a Johannesburg shantytown. Thanks to the lensing by Lance Gewer, poverty has seldom looked so resplendent.

Striding down these scenic streets of impecunious iniquity is nineteen-year-old Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) and his hapless band of three. Expressionless, Tsotsi is searching for his gang's next prey. Focused, his ears are deaf to the jeers of his neighbors: "Hah, the little gangster! Did you learn to drive?"

The quarry is finally selected. A heavy-set gentleman, who just bought a scarf from a subway stand, stupidly takes his cash out of his pay envelope, which he then stuffs back into his suit's inner pocket. It will be the last scarf he will ever purchase.

But "Tsotsi," which means "thug," is not a chronicle of a gang and its crime spree. Here's a tale of how one young man has become so brutalized by the time he reaches post-adolescence, he is cut off from his own emotions. A rock-hard apathy to life is the stance Tsotsi's desperately trying to achieve. And when anyone tries to crack this veneer, an uncontrollable embitterment seeps out, expressing itself in a convulsive violence.

After one such spasm of savagery, in which Tsotsi continuously pummels the face of one of his protégés--a hapless alcoholic would-be-teacher-turned-felon (Mothusi Magano)--the gang leader goes solo. He hijacks a car, shooting its female owner in the stomach, and drives off. Only miles later does Tsotsi realize his plunder includes a 3-month-old baby boy.

At first, Tsotsi considers abandoning the tot. Then some emotional tic from his past echoes a long forgotten response of tenderness, and the indifferent malefactor stuffs the tot into a sack and heads home with all his loot.


What follows is a comic tragedy. Tsotsi diapering his new toy with a newspaper. Tsotsi figuring out how to feed the toy: crusts of bread or a can of milk. Tsotsi forcing a mother to breastfeed his toy at gunpoint.

Between these episodes, flashbacks of his youth start pummeling forth. Tsotsi's mother dying from AIDS. His father breaking the back of his dog. Tsotsi running away and living in abandoned concrete pipes in a barren field.

In numerous scenes, posters proclaim in the background: "We are all affected by HIV and AIDS." One in ten South Africans now carries the virus. "Tsotsi" conveys that the infected are not the only ones dying. Johannesburg's thoroughfares are littered here with orphans who are being molded into future Tsotsis.

Astutely written and directed by Gavin Hood with a pounding soundtrack of streetwise "Kwaito" tunes, the film scrabbles up to a must-see level due to its adroit cast. Terry Pheto makes a lasting impression as the terrorized breastfeeding widow, as does Jerry Mofokeng as a legless panhandler who unwisely spits on Tsotsi's sneakers. But it's Chweneyagae, in his feature debut, on whose shoulders the whole project resides. It's the tension between the seesawing of his character's brittle, impassive, pseudo-cool style and the discovery of his maternal instincts that make "Tsotsi" fly. His is a solid, consequential performance that's bitingly memorable.

Athol Fugard, not an objective observer here, has written that "Tsotsi" just might "rank as one of the best films ever to come out of South Africa," but he may be right.

Copyright © Brandon Judell 2005

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