"Tsotsi" is the 2005 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film of the year. I'm not convinced it was the best foreign-language film in competition, but this South African entry was certainly a worthy contender.
The story of a crime-hardened youth growing up in an impoverished shantytown outside a big city may seem more than a little like 2002's "City of God," and, indeed, there are remarkable similarities. However, whereas both the Brazilian film and the South African film aspire to portray a criminal life in the slums in as gritty a way as possible, it is "City of God" that strikes the more realistic chord. It's not that "Tsotsi" sentimentalizes its subject matter exactly; it just tends to oversimplify it more.
"Tsotsi" involves a young lawbreaker who hijacks an expensive automobile one night, shooting its rich female owner. A few minutes later, looking in the back, he finds a baby strapped to a car seat. The natural thing we would expect a hood to do would be for him to abandon the child in the car; or, if he had any conscience at all, return it surreptitiously to its parents or at least leave it on a doorstep someplace. But, no, he takes the baby away with him to his tin shack on the edge of Johannesburg and decides to care for it himself. Now, you may think this action so absurd that the film is going to turn into a warmhearted comedy, a "Three Men and a Baby" affair where after much merriment the kid brings eventual peace and harmony to the young man's life. Not so. The film is a serious drama and plays it straight from beginning to end.
So, what's going on? Taken literally, "Tsotsi" is probably too exaggerated to represent reality. But on a metaphoric level the movie works its magic better. The baby comes to symbolize for the young crook everything he could have been but wasn't. The child embodies himself; and he wants to care for and nurture it the way nobody ever cared for or loved him. He wants to become the child's mother and father and wants the child to be himself at the same time. He sees it as a way to reclaim some of the humanity he lost growing up hard and mean. Of course, things don't go as planned; the moviemaker, writer and director Gavin Hood, basing his film on a novel by Athol Fugard, is too perceptive than to allow the story to degenerate into pure melodrama. But I have to admit, it sometimes comes close.
The young man's name is Tsotsi, a South African word for "thug." His real name is David, but nobody calls him that; as I said, he lost what little humanity he had long ago, and now it is only the generic "thug" appellation that applies. When we first meet him, he is working with three pals in a gang that robs and steals for their meager living. One night they go so far as to kill a man, which is the first of several turning points for Tsotsi, the next being the subsequent finding of the child. Tsotsi is about twenty years old and played by a young fellow of immense intensity, Presley Chweneyagae. In the beginning we see that nothing touches the character. He has cold, dead eyes, and when one of his pals feels regret about the killing they've committed, Tsotsi beats him within an inch of his life.
Some viewers may find the violence in the first part of the film, though minimal in duration, too extreme for their taste; it is certainly not a film for the squeamish. Nevertheless, this is all a part of director Hood's attempt to show us the very worst in Tsotsi before showing us that there is always some good in people, no matter how small, hiding somewhere deep down inside.
Tsotsi's friends are young, hardened criminals like himself, but each has a distinctive personality. In fact, they reminded me a lot of the decidedly noncriminal pals in "ATL." One of Tsotsi's friends, Boston (Mothusi Magano), is very bright and well educated, almost becoming a teacher; another, Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), is sweet and relatively gentle; the third, Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), is ruthless and cruel. As in "ATL," the four men have been buddies for most of their lives, and they are just now starting to find themselves and go in different directions. And as in "ATL," we see these characters more as stereotypes than as real people, which in both movies works fine for establishing the themes they're after.
What doesn't work quite so well is Tsotsi's relationship with a young widow, Miriam (Terry Pheto), a stranger with a baby of her own, whom Tsotsi forces to care for his own newly found child. Why she doesn't turn him in immediately to the authorities is anybody's guess; I suppose partly she's afraid because Tsotsi does wield a gun and partly she's sympathetic to his plight. Still, she is a good, honest woman and in his long absences she could easily arrange to have him brought to justice.
One of the most touching scenes in the movie is Tsotsi's encounter with an old, crippled man. It is yet a third turning point for Tsotsi. He wants to know why the old man continues striving to live, and it leads him to question his own existence and what it means to be alive, probably for the first time in his young life.
Tsotsi feels trapped by his miserable world, and we see in flashbacks to his own childhood how he came to be like millions of others (growing up in a cement pipe is another, rather overstated symbol of his doom). The movie is about his awakening to something better in himself, a sense of decency that his friend Boston speaks of but which seems at first so alien to him.
The movie is ultimately about respect--for others and for oneself. It's about discovering one's own humanity. "Please" and "thank you" and "I'm sorry" come hard for Tsotsi, but eventually the words do come. The filmmaker may oversimplify his subject matter in his attempts at social symbolism, but his audience manipulation works in a positive way, nonetheless.
Are people the products of their circumstances, their environment, their family, and can circumstances within people further change their outlook on life? The film does a reasonably good job persuading us to feel some small compassion for the thug who seeks redemption. The drama in "Tsotsi" is strong; the acting is uniformly excellent; and the tension and emotions are fairly high. In the long run, the film may not entirely satisfy one's intellectual curiosity, but it pleases the heart.
The picture quality could hardly be better. A high bit-rate, anamorphic transfer maintains a sharp, clear, clean image throughout. The Buena Vista video engineers have also retained most of the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, here measuring about 2.15:1 across my television, give or take. The print itself must have been relatively free of grain, because I saw no traces of anything unusual in this area. What's more, colors are completely natural, without ever being too bright or too dull. Detail is also excellent, especially noticeable in wide landscape shots, sometimes almost matching high definition. And there are a lot of long shots in the film, emphasizing Tsotsi's isolation from humanity; surrounded by a million people, he is alone. We need the kind of visual clarity the film provides in order for that message to sink in.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound makes itself known in the surrounds from the opening title song, where we hear the singers' voices coming from both front and rear speakers. Then a subway train roars into a station, winding up in the back channels. City noises are well captured in the rear channels as well, all of it demonstrating exemplary lucidity and frequency range without ever being overdone.
The bonus materials are not extraordinary, but they are useful. There is, of course, the expected audio commentary by screenwriter and director Gavin Hood, who provides a series of straightforward explanations for everything he did in the film. Next, Hood provides optional commentary for two alternate endings and three deleted scenes. Then, there is a thirteen-minute featurette, "The Making of Tsotsi," that is again something one would expect, plus a short, twenty-two minute film, "The Storekeeper," that the director made in 1998; it may be the most worthwhile of the extras. Finally, there is a music video, "Mdlwembe," by Zola, the singer who plays a small part as a gangster in the movie.
Taal is an official language of South Africa, and the disc case indicates that Tsotsi-Taal is the movie's spoken language. One must assume that Tsotsi-Taal is a dialect of Taal. For most of us in America, we will want to utilize the English or Spanish subtitles, or the English captions for the hearing impaired. Fortunately for those viewers who do not like reading subtitles, there is actually little dialogue in the film. Given BV's penchant to be stingy about scene selections, we should not be surprised to find that "Tsotsi" has only fifteen of them, but at least the studio provides a chapter insert as well.
As I said in the beginning, I'm not sure I would have picked "Tsotsi" as the best foreign-language film of the year, as good as it is. I found it more than a tad simplistic in its approach to crime and redemption, the baby gimmick less realistic and more metaphorical than the movie's supposedly gritty approach to wrongdoing would lead us to believe. Still, the film keeps one under its spell most of the way, and there is surely no denying its fine acting or good intentions.