Top Ten World Cinema #3: Tsotsi
My love affair with world cinema began nearly a decade ago when I watched French hit, Amelie (2001). Previously I had been reluctant to watch any film with subtitles, worried that it would hinder my enjoyment of the film. How wrong was I to be so naive? Since Amelie I have spent more time in the world cinema section at HMV than any other part of the shop and enjoyed a range of films from South America, Africa, Europe and East Asia. Discussing all my favourites would take many blogs but over the next ten days I will share what are currently, for me, the Top Ten World Cinema films. The standard of world cinema is very high with such gems as Ikiru (1952) and Let The Right One In (2008) missing out on the Top Ten. For those of you that haven’t tried world cinema I hope some of these films will be of interest. Those of you that are veterans in this field, I’m sure you won’t agree with all of my choices but I’ve no doubt you’ll appreciate a celebration of what is often an overlooked section in DVD shops.
Gavin Hood’s Oscar-winning 2005 adaptation of Athol Fugard’s novel first caught my interest when I read about it in Empire. Set in Johannesburg in South Africa, Tsotsi depicts six days in the life of a gang leader who commits a series of atrocious crimes but through one unfortunate accident is forced to not only face his brutality but has the chance of redemption.
The premise to the film is gang leader Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae), literally meaning ‘thug,’ has an argument with one of his friends and leaves him with a wounded eye. Wandering the streets alone, Tsotsi happens upon a rich estate and proceeds to steal a car from a woman who is having trouble opening the gates to her home. As Tsotsi drives away he panics and shoots the woman as she tries to stop him. Not far down the road Tsotsi crashes the car when he hears a baby crying on the backseat! At this point he faces a difficult dilemma – leave the baby in the middle of nowhere or take the child home with him. After some hesitation Tsotsi decides on the latter option. The film traces the next six days as the authorities search for the child, while Tsotsi slowly begins to change with the responsibility of a baby to care for.
The film could easily have descended down the road of melodrama with a brutal criminal suddenly becoming a law abiding citizen over night. Tsotsi doesn’t work quite that simply. In fact to begin with Tsotsi is pretty hopeless at caring for the child, even resorting to forcing a neighbour, Miriam (Terry Pheto), at gunpoint to breastfeed the baby. It is a combination of Tsotsi’s meeting with Miriam and caring for the child that begins to make him see the world differently. This filters through into another encounter with a beggar who has been crippled working down the mines. After being insulted by the beggar, Tsotsi pursues him down darkened streets only to engage him briefly in conversation before leaving the man unharmed.
The performances and characters in the film are excellent with Chweneyagae outstanding in the lead. Tsotsi does contain some moments that are difficult to watch but in revealing the past of its protagonist he becomes a more sympathetic character driven to his life of crime by a need for survival. Not that his past can atone Tsotsi for his present actions. In the end, although he has been changed by his experience of caring for a baby, Tsotsi is forced to decide between right and wrong and his final decision is a reflection of the impact the six days of caring for a baby have had on him.
Top Ten so far:-