“Tsotsi” opens with a group of hoods playing dice. They bicker, one making a particularly compelling argument by slamming his knife into the table. The three turn to their leader, the title character (the name simply mean “thug”), who’s brooding by the window: “What are we doing tonight, Tsotsi?” And Presley Chweneyagae turns to the camera, and a throbbing kwaito track kicks in as the gang swings off to saunter down the street of the township, a sprawling shantytown on the outskirts of Johannesburg.
It’s gleefully, guiltily enjoyable. It’s unavoidably reminiscent of “City of God.” But director Gavin Hood’s film quickly parts ways with Fernando Meirelles’ slick epic of favela stylishness “Tsotsi” has more intimate concerns. It’s the sometimes simplistic, urgently earnest story of how a violent criminal ends up accidentally kidnapping a baby and eventually finding redemption.
Chweneyagae has a striking, catlike face, which, for much of the duration of “Tsotsi,” is either fixed in a glower of repressed rage or quivering with uneasiness. It’s not a handsome face, which is a good thing if his Tsotsi were at all charming, this film would be unbearably sentimental. As is, he’s both frightening and clueless he commits acts of violence and acts of something approaching compassion (or at least, basic humanity) without thought. He beats one of his fellow gang members half to death because he dared ask about Tsotsi’s past; he shoots a woman and steals her car on impulse; when he finds a baby in the back, he puts it in a shopping bag and carries it home simply because it smiled at him. After failing miserably at caring for the infant, he follows a young mother (Terry Pheto) home and forces her, at gunpoint, to feed “his baby.” Half of Tsotsi’s redemptive journey is less an emotional one than one of his learning to act on something other than pure instinct.
Cinematographer Lance Gewer keeps the township in seeming perpetual dusk, a smoky, mazelike collection of corrugated metal shacks that stretches out to the horizon like a settlement at the end of the world. There’s a sense that the fragile civilization is barely holding out against entropy an abandoned car is totally stripped by the next day, and one a memorably disturbing scene, Tsotsi leaves the baby with some condensed milk, only to come back to find it covered in ants. The rest of Johannesburg is confined to being a scenic skyline, save the main train station, prime hunting ground for Tsotsi and his gang. AIDS posters loom above, and the disease figures in to Tsotsi’s backstory, one that’s ultimately unsatisfying as an explanation for his violent present.
Athol Fugard was only in his late 20s when he wrote the novel on which “Tsotsi” is based, and you can feel it in the story, though the ending is Hood’s own. Kwaito gives way to soaring African vocals, tears are shed, atonement is found, and you can imagine Academy voters nodding and dabbing their eyes this is what a foreign film should be! The rest of us can take pleasure in the complexities and vitality of the first half of the film, before a fascinating look at life in the townships becomes a mere fable.
“Tsotsi” opens in limited release on February 24. For more on the film, see the official site.