Tsotsi: To See Or Not To See
by Jan Stetter
This year’s Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Picture, Tsotsi has been hailed as an uplifting motion picture. Set in the backdrop of South Africa’s urban impoverished tenements, it tells the story of a young man’s life of abandonment, survival and the possibility of redemption.
“Tsotsi” is a slang term meaning “thug” and is the name of the main character. Tsotsi is the predator that leads a small band of three insouciant vagrants. Their days and nights are dictated by where Tsotsi leads them to meet their prey.
Through several violent scenes, one readily believes in the futility of Tsotsi’s existence and in the worthlessness of his aimless life. The story takes an immediate turn when Tsotsi hijacks a car and shoots the owner. Tsotsi races away to escape the woman’s pleading and crashes the car. As he begins to make a quick getaway, his plan is interrupted as there is an infant strapped in the back seat of the car.
While Tsotsi may pull at the heartstrings by accurately and effectively illustrating the absolute destitution of South Africa, the premise of the movie is not convincing. Tsotsi takes the baby and cares for it. The baby is the story’s vehicle for Tsotsi to see vulnerability in humanity. As a young child, he lost his mother who died from an AIDS-related illness. A life of brutal survival is all he has learned.
Director Gavin Hood did an excellent job of illustrating the destitute portrait of poverty in South Africa. The use of flashback memories helps develop Tsotsi’s austere transition from a poor, beloved son to a vicious street fighter. Hood, a South African, is pleased by the acclaim the film has been given. He also appreciates the opportunity to show the world the beauty and hardship of his native land.
Perhaps Hood did too good of a job demonstrating the brutal violence of Tsotsi’s life. That may be this film’s greatest failure. Newcomer Presley Chweneyagae, in a very purposeful and willful performance, illicits the raw anger and lack of conscience for his character. Tsotsi beats one of his underlings to a pulp and shoots a woman, leaving her a paraplegic. In the next breath, he takes a dependent infant and tries to care for it.
To honestly accept this premise reduces this movie to a contrived formula where sentimentality portrays struggle and redemption. The ending is ambiguous at best. The film failed to evoke the impact of an all-consuming infant actually transforming this young man.
It is exciting to watch Presley Chweneyagae play the angry Tsotsi; he grew up in South Africa in a tenement existence. As a youth, he invested his energy on education and drama rather than the more prevalent choice of violence and survival of the cruelest.
Presley Chweneyagae adds realism and sadness to Tsotsi’s life. Too bad the rest of the film’s credibility failed to match Chweneyagae’s passionate performance.
I’m not selling this movie, nor am I discounting it. However, I’m not buying it.
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