The following is a throwback (slightly amended) review I wrote in 2006. This is nearly four years before I published anything in any format. I found it on my hard drive and felt it worth sharing, even if the language is simpler (perhaps more straightforward) than I often write reviews in these days. I have a couple more of these old reviews I might share at some point. Anyways, Tsotsi is a fantastic film, and one I need to certainly watch again soon.
Life is a game of chance: we do not know whether we will be born into poverty or riches. At the same time, the decisions we make invariably influence the path we walk. The theme of chance is emphasized in the opening shots of Tsotsi as we watch Tsotsi’s gang roll dice, set in the monochromatic shades of a dark, dingy shack. Tsotsi, which literally means “thug,” is an effective and poignant film directed by Gavin Hood (adapted from an Athol Fugard novel) about a young man named Tsotsi who embarks on a transformative journey, set in motion by the helplessness of a baby. Tsotsi had no intention of kidnapping the baby, discovering it in the backseat of a car he stole after shooting its mother while she got out to ring the buzzer at her gate. The early contrast between the rich and poor communities depicts the austere differences between life in the broken-down shanty township of Soweto to which Tsotsi belongs, and the baby’s parents’ gated, luxurious home in the wealthy community of Joburg, illustrated with masterful cuts of cinematography. Fanon’s article “On Violence” provides an accurate description of what the shantytowns look like in the film: “It’s a world of no space, people are piled one on top of the other, the shacks squeezed tightly together” (4). Tsotsi is a killer, a fact brutally fleshed out earlier in the film by his senseless murder of man on a crowded train in order to steal his wallet. With this knowledge, it would seem that Tsotsi is unfit to take care of a baby, but for some intrinsic reason he takes on this task.
The acting from the almost all African cast is superb, and the young actor (Presley Chweneyagae) who plays Tsotsi has a magnificent amount of control over his emotions, ensuring his portrayal never crosses into melodramatic hamming. There is no sentimentalized view of poverty in this film, and we are not made to feel sympathetic towards Tsotsi. Rather, we journey alongside his transformative awakening on a thin line of hope: a hope that in the end he will do the right thing and give the baby back to its rightful guardians. Because the film is shot within close fields of vision, we are able to see what goes on inside Tsotsi’s head. Metaphorically, Tsotsi undergoes a medieval psychomachia of sorts—a battle for his soul, which the director carefully depicts vis-à-vis subtle shots of Tsotsi walking centre screen down a railway track. Tsotsi has become so dependant on wearing the mask of his public persona that intense feelings of his own innocence bleed into his private sphere where he has become protector of a baby he loves as if it was his own. The tragic comedy results from Tsotsi’s lack of knowing how to take care of a baby: he uses newspapers as diapers, and carries him around with him in a shopping bag. Fortunately Miriam, a nursing mother, provides a counterpoint to Tsotsi’s frustration and helps to gradually ignite a spark of love within Tsotsi’s psyche, deeply buried since his childhood.
Truly, the film is about hope and overcoming one’s odds against the shit cards life can sometimes deal. Tsotsi does not romanticize poverty, glamorize violence, or make us sympathetic towards a violent young man like Tsotsi; rather, it allows us to see the effects and suddenness of violence. Violence committed by the oppressor is passed onto the oppressed in a vicious cycle: the oppressed are left in poverty, while the rich get richer. Tsotsi represents the possibility that maybe the cycle can be broken: a hope for a post-apartheid South African black teenager, and a hope that Tsotsi can become a better person and ultimately do the right thing. In the context of the film, that’s giving the baby back and allowing reconciliation to take place within himself for his own troubled past—allegorical of the reconciliation process in South African. The film follows this progressive journey right up to its heavy ending, which we watch in a perpetual state of anticipation. The film does not try and prescriptively solve the enormous condition of poverty in South Africa; instead, the film traverses beyond the realm of violence, using the theme of forgiveness as a way to move forward and rebuild. The process of moving forward is an utterly frightening concept for Tsotsi, but there is a hopefulness that things can and should be better than they are, at least within his own world.
Check out the trailer:
Fanon, Frantz. “On Violence.” The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 2006. Print.