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Tsotsi - Review


Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

HARD-hitting South African drama Tsotsi deservedly won the Oscar for best foreign language film given its breathtaking portrayal of a young thug finding redemption from violence in a shanty town outside Johannesburg.

Gavin Hood’s movie offers an astonishingly authentic depiction of a South Africa still struggling to cope with the ravishes of Apartheid and Aids, while simultaneously benefiting from comparisons to the raw, compelling style of City of God.

Yet as unflinching and difficult to watch as Tsotsi can be, at times, the film succeeds in finding humanity in the unlikeliest of places.

The film follows the fortunes of a young thug named Tsotsi (or thug) played with mesmerising intensity by Presley Chweneyagae.

Tsotsi lives in a corrugated hut on the outskirts of Johannesburg but frequently travels into the city to assault and rob its citizens with the help of his equally ruthless young gang.

Within the space of the opening 20 minutes, Tsotsi has been complicit in the unnecessary murder of a commuter on the Underground and launched a savage attack on one of his colleagues that leaves him pretty much scarred for life.

Having been shunned by his friends for the second attack, Tsotsi then car-jacks a woman outside her home, shooting her in the process and speeding off with her BMW.

Little does he know, however, that he has also kidnapped her baby and the subsequent discovery of the child sets Tsotsi along an unlikely path to redemption as he resolves to try and raise the infant himself.

The ensuing film offers a gradual but fascinating insight into Tsotsi’s fragmented psychology, from his tough upbringing at the hands of an abusive father, to his decision to change his own identity.

His relationship with the child, while unlikely at first, is beautifully realised and realistically portrayed, benefiting from Chweneyagae’s uncanny ability to switch from moments of extreme violence to aching affection with casual ease.

The actor possesses a very distinct look that makes him both frightening and sympathetic in equal measure, marking him out as a name to look out for in the future.

Needless to say, Tsotsi is ill-equipped to deal with the demands of a baby alone, so enlists the reluctant help of a young mother to do so who, in turn, helps him to come to some difficult decisions about their future.

Yet as the police close in and the baby’s real mother recovers, it’s only a matter of time before events conspire to reach their heartbreaking conclusion.

Hood, for his part, refuses to allow things to become too sentimental and continually surprises the audience with his ability to both shock and take his characters in new directions.

His screenplay, based on Athol Fugard’s early 1960s novel, has been updated and made contemporary yet succeeds in addressing some very pertinent issues, providing a gritty insight into the darker side of South Africa.

While Lance Gewer’s exceptional cinematography provides the film with a distinct look that’s every bit as memorable as Fernando Meirelles’ aforementioned City of God.

The Oscar win is likely to ensure that the film gets the attention it so richly deserves given that Tsotsi is undeniably powerful cinema that packs a hefty emotional wallop.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 95mins