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“Tsotsi”: Steal a baby, redeem your soul.

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“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.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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