Gavin Hood’s Oscar-winning 2005 adaptation of Athol Fugard’s novel first caught my interest when I read about it in Empire. I’ve since read Fugard’s novel and have enjoyed both but the film truly is something very special. Set in Johannesburg in South Africa, Tsotsi depicts six days in the life of a gang leader who commits a series of atrocious crimes at the outset but through one unfortunate accident is forced to not only face his brutality but he has the chance of redemption.
The premise to the film is gang leader Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae), literally meaning ‘thug,’ who 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 overnight. 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.
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.
Depicting the sad poverty that sadly afflicts many African people to this day, Tsotsi offers a brief insight into one of many painful stories that will exist on the streets of Johanessburg. There are no Hollywood endings here, just an eye opening injection of the real world that is hard to survive in.
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