Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.
The opening 15 minutes of Tsotsi is one of the most intense film experiences I have ever had. In this 15 minutes or so, our title character (Presley Chweneyagae) kills a man in a subway, beats one of his friends half to death, shoots a woman and steals both her car and her infant son. The genius of the film, much like the genius of a film like Peeping Tom, is forcing us as the audience to eventually come to respect and even like a character as reprehensible as Tsotsi (which translates as “Thug”), and to do it in the very short running time of the film. It’s remarkable.
Tsotsi is the leader of a gang of four. His seconds are the large and somewhat genial Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), and the more scholarly Boston (Mothusi Magano), who the gang also call “Teacher Boy.” Instigating a mugging on the subway, Tsotsi stabs the man and the others hold him up until the other train riders depart. Afterwards, Boston reacts badly to the murder, confronting Tsotsi on his evident heartlessness. This leads to Tsotsi beating Boston badly, then running away on his own. It is here that he sees a woman struggling to enter her home. He jumps into her car and shoots her when she protests, not realizing that she wasn’t going back for the car, but her son.
This, more than anything, is where Tsotsi won me over completely. This was Chweneyagae’s first film role, and he is completely natural. His fear when he realizes there is an infant in the back seat appears completely real. There is no talking through this portion of the film, and yet Tsotsi’s thoughts are completely in evidence. He is scared enough to abandon the child but has just enough humanity left (spurred no doubt by the speech from Boston that earned him a beating) to take the child with him and do his best to care for the little boy (played, as is often the case, by twins, in this case by Nonthuthu and Ntuthuko Sibisi).
Still running with just Aap and Butcher, Tsotsi begins to develop the start of a conscience. He takes the child to Miriam (Terry Pheto), who is nursing her own child, and threatens her at gunpoint to nurse this one as well. Eventually, she takes control of the care of the child full time, allowing Tsotsi to continue to develop his rudimentary humanity. He feels something akin to guilt for the beating he gave Boston, and decides to do something about it. In this case, since Boston reveals he never took the exam that would qualify him as a teacher, Tsotsi decides to steal enough money to allow Boston to essentially leave the life in the slum.
All of this makes for a nice movie of the week about the redemption of a criminal as hard as Li’l Ze from City of God. Fortunately for Tsotsi and the viewing audience, there are several very important things this film has going in its favor. First is the excellent source material and script. Tsotsi is based on a work by noted South African author Athol Fugard, and it wears its pedigree very well. Second, and of far more importance, are the performances, particularly from Terry Pheto and Presley Chweneyagae. The best script in the world would be wasted if the actors didn’t have the chops to pull it off, and top to bottom here, this one is cast beautifully and acted as well as anything made in the last couple of decades.
But the great script really helps. As a character, Tsotsi starts as a complete sociopath, a character as amoral and casually evil as any in cinematic history—perhaps more so because he is also completely believable. And while the film is more or less the story of his climb to humanity and redemption as a human being, his steps there are slow and faltering, and thus completely in tune with something like reality.
As mentioned, this was Chweneyagae’s debut film, but it was also Pheto’s, and I can only hope as a film fan that the two of them find a lot of work in film for as long as they want it. These are not merely debuts, but breakout roles, the sort of roles that turn people into household names (which would be quite a feat in the U.S. with Chweneyagae’s mouthful of a moniker for English speakers).
The film also succeeds in presenting a world that appears to be completely consistent. The environment feels real, as do the sets, as do all of the people that inhabit it. The language, a mixture of English, Zulu, Afrikaans, and Xhosa, comes out as a mixture in almost all speech, with recognizable words here and there. It’s as if these characters learned bits and pieces of all of these tongues and speak them in a sort of stew, each one running into and over the next. There’s something strangely beautiful in it.
In the end, Tsotsi is a completely moving film about redemption and about (dare I say it) the indomitable human spirit. Viewed as something potentially uplifting and moving, it more than has the power to move an audience, but walks a thin line between this uplift and treading firmly into movie-of-the-week territory. It treads this razor edge beautifully, but for those not willing to accept it, it may well step over into that maudlin abyss.
Why to watch Tsotsi: An intensity like few other films.
Why not to watch: Viewed in the wrong mindset, it’s easily mistaken for maudlin.