This 2005 Award Winning film introduces us to a hardened South African criminal named Tsotsi (Short for Tsotsitaal), who has a childish appearance that seems to contradict the intense anger that manifests itself in his brutality towards other people. The film explains his name to viewers who don’t speak the language in an emotional exchange between “Boston” (Mothusi Magano) and Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) in which Boston questions Tsotsi about his true name. We learn from this hostile confrontation that Tsotsi means thug, a name taken by the hardened gangster.
Tsotsi has a small street gang made up of his longtime associate Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe) and Boston. The gang loiters around a major train terminal watching for potential marks. Amidst the crush of people on the train, they silently rob their marks in the wide open. When one of these robberies turns into a homicide, Boston begins to question Tsotsi with pointed inflammatory statements regarding decency and Tsotsi’s own past. The questions regarding his past spark a violent response in Tsotsi that leaves Boston battered and bloody.
Tsotsi leaves his minions to tend to Boston while he runs. During this time, he begins to reveal elements of his past in flashbacks. It seems that Tsotsi has been running for a long time. It is unclear whether Tsotsi is reflecting on his past or conducting surveillance on his next target, but the end result is the same. Tsotsi sees an opportunity to make some money by stealing an expensive car and ends up shooting a woman in the process. The shooting leads to a series of events that disrupt the gang and begin to water the seed of “decency” planted in his confrontation with Boston. Slow changes begin to erode the façade of impregnability that Tsotsi has created, causing deep reflection on his past and re-evaluation of his future.
Tsotsi tells an engaging story of humanity. It seems that no matter how hardened a person has become some small kernel of decency might still be found in them. The opportunity for redemption is never truly lost even on the vilest of criminals. I had mixed feelings regarding the layered messages, but opted to view the film as cinema and not as a discussion of political ideas. Tsotsi’s past seems to paint his actions in a different light, make his character more engaging and infuse him with depth. Conversely, it could be viewed as mitigating his actions because of the social influences that Tsotsi has been exposed to. I tend to think the former is more accurate. The latter is deftly addressed by writing that does not allow Tsotsi to go unpunished. A cop-out ending like that would have ruined this otherwise balanced drama. The character development, dialogue, plot were all interesting and excellent. Some of the character interactions seemed a bit implausible, but did not greatly affect my enjoyment of the movie. There were two alternate endings shot for this film (available on the DVD) that were not used. I am glad, because neither one of them sent the right message…in the end, Tsotsi settles for exactly the right ending.
There were times that I thought Tsotsi felt a little bit like a stage-play…which isn’t bad…it is just a style of cinema that is less common these days. It was refreshing in one sense, but did detract slightly from what was going on. The positioning of the actors and staged feel of the exchanges were noticeable on a couple of occasions. The acting, however, was pretty good. I was less than impressed with Nkosi, who created some of that stage feel with a slightly hammy performance, but the rest of the cast was strong. Chweneyagae is required to carry much of the film and does an excellent job. I had a bit of trouble believing his character at first, because of his youngish appearance, but he ended up pulling it off and leaving me pleasantly surprised by his performance. The young Tsotsi (David) is played by Benny Moshe who was well cast in the part. Magano was also excellent, injecting passion into his emotional exchange that provided one of the key moments in the film. Ngqobe has a violent role and has to be convincing as a hardened killer…he seemed far colder than Chweneyagae and it worked to the benefit of the story. Although the film had a different cinematic feel, the cast did an excellent job of engaging the audience and moving the story forward.
Director Gavin Hood adapted Tsotsi from a novel written by Athol Fugard. Hood did a solid job of bringing together a strong cast with a moving story. The dialogue added depth to the story and was well paced. The stage-like feel only surfaced a couple of times, usually when Nkosi was in the frame. I think he took a little bit away from this film. The story had interesting undercurrents but never exploited them to score cheap political points. The ending was nicely balanced. The alternative endings both would have changed the message of the film and taken away from my overall enjoyment. Hood made the right choice and delivered an engaging film that is well worth watching. 7.5/10.
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