Tsotsi begins with a roll of the dice, and we're supposed to realize that life can be like that for the kids who've grown up in the black townships of post-apartheid Johannesburg. Poverty, unemployment, AIDS Ã?' no wonder so many turn to violence and crime. It's a way of increasing their odds for survival, at least for a while. The title character of Tsotsi (a slang word for "gangster" or "thug") has been on his own so long that he barely remembers his mother and father. His mother had HIV, his father was an alcoholic, and Tsotsi, played by Presley Chweneyagae in a performance both fierce and tender, has only scar tissue where his heart once was. Robbed of a childhood, he now robs others. And he'd just as soon shoot you as look at you.
But things are about to change for this cold-blooded killer. Driving away from a carjacking, in which he shot the owner of the car and left her for dead, Tsotsi hears a whimpering sound coming from the back seat, and before you can say Three Men and a Baby, he's launched on something resembling fatherhood. He doesn't come by it naturally. Instead of a crib, he hauls the thing around in a shopping bag. And when it becomes clear that solid food isn't an option, he forces a woman at gunpoint to nurse the newborn child. Tsotsi is clearly a work in progress, and director Gavin Hood, who adapted a novel by Athol Fugard, has his work cut out for him getting us to believe that this fatherless son deserves a son of his own, especially since the son in question already has a father. Is Tsotsi worth it?
And is Tsotsi? The winner of this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, it purports to "tell it like it is," and it's been made with some true grit. But it also has a sentimental streak a mile wide. Fugard set his novel in the '50s and '60s, when apartheid was locking everybody and everything into place, and Tsotsi was supposed to be what you got when you insisted on keeping people apart. But Hood has updated the movie to the present, when blacks in South Africa theoretically have nobody to blame but themselves. Fugard allowed Tsotsi to be squashed by the system, a victim as much as a victimizer. Hood, though hardly condoning the crimes Tsotsi has committed, allows a ray of hope to fall on this prodigal son. As in the biblical parable, Tsotsi finally comes around, begs for forgiveness.
And if we grant it to him, it's in large part due to Chweneyagae, who moves imperceptibly from guilt to innocence, condemned to saved. Hood holds the camera on Chweneyagae's face, captures the eyes as they cloud over, then clear up, then cloud over again. And he's shot the movie in widescreen, so that the distances between people are almost too far to traverse. The camerawork's rather perfunctory, adding little to the story's tenser moments, but the images themselves, drained of color, with the days almost as dark as the nights, are luridly beautiful. And sometimes they break your heart, like the one of a group of kids Ã?' orphans, apparently Ã?' who live in some abandoned sewer pipes that are stacked up like a child's toy.
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