Tsotsi, a South African film by writer/director Gavin Hood, took home last year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. A young thug living out a bleak existence in the slums of Johannesburg stumbles upon an infant during a carjacking attempt, which leads him to question the path on which he’s headed.
Over the years, my friend and I have developed a crude but effective system of critical shorthand in describing our first impressions of a film. Admittedly, it’s no “thumbs up/thumbs down” but hey, it works for us. Imagine a phone conversation that goes a little something like this:
“Dude, what’s up?”
“Not a lot – I just watched Tsotsi, last year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film.”
“Yeah? What’d you think?”
(In response, there’s a slight hesitation as the critic’s voice immediately rises several octaves above its normal register and syllables are stretched to their breaking point.)
“Eeeeeehhh, it was good, I guess.”
And there you have it. Simple, but surprisingly accurate. If the respondent endorses the picture but does so in a manner reminiscent of a high-pitched moan, this is a clear indication that the film, although not a bomb, is disappointingly mediocre. If, on the other hand, the respondent replies positively but without hesitation and in his normal speaking voice, we know immediately we’ve got a winner.
So yes, I did sound like a charter member of the Vienna Boys’ Choir when asked to give my opinion of Tsotsi, written and directed by Gavin Hood and based on the novel by Athol Fugard. I really wanted to like this morality tale of redemption and self-discovery set in the slums of Johannesburg, South Africa, but for a variety of reasons it failed to resonate. The Academy loves a socially conscious film like this with its recognizable character arcs and gritty depiction of Third World squalor, so it’s no surprise that it took home the prize.
Presley Chweneyagae, in an impressive acting debut, plays the title character, whose nickname means “thug” in the urban slang of Johannesburg. Early scenes depict him, with cold-blooded efficiency, living up to his name as he leads a group of similarly disenfranchised youths on a crime spree throughout the city. After a brutal subway mugging and murder leads to a confrontation with a more remorseful member of his gang, Tsotsi flees to the suburbs, where opportunity awaits and his downward spiral continues.
Outside a palatial gated estate, he carjacks a luxury sedan and hastily shoots the owner when she tries to stop him. After crashing the car into a street sign miles down the road, Tsotsi soon learns why the woman was so intent on preventing his escape. In the backseat is an infant crying in vain for its mother. After much agonizing, our morally ambiguous hero grabs the child, throws it in a shopping bag, and takes it with him to his humble shack in the sprawling township slums.
Can anyone guess where the film is headed from this point? Predictably, the cuddly baby soon softens the hardened heart of the young criminal, who obviously longs for a family of his own. His troublesome sociopathic tendencies are explained away by typical flashbacks of childhood trauma so we can more easily sympathize with his plight. All the elements are neatly in place for Tsotsi, faced with the dilemma of what to do with this baby, to rediscover his humanity somewhere along the way. With apologies to Guttenberg, Danson, and Selleck, the film could just as easily have been called “One Thug and a Baby.”
I know that sounds awfully cynical, but Hood does little with his uninspired direction to elevate the film above the novel’s inherently melodramatic plot. In true Film School 101 fashion, each scene is staged as a painfully obvious signifier of an overriding theme or significant aspect of character development (here’s where we see that Tsotsi is no Boy Scout, here’s where he becomes conflicted, here’s where we learn why he’s so sad, here’s when he starts to have a change of heart, etc). By employing a relatively static shot/countershot style in almost every scene, any onscreen conflict is divested of what little kinetic energy it had in the first place. Characters simply emote in one soap opera close-up after another. It had to be overwhelming at times for young Presley, whose delicate, almost feminine features occupy the screen for much of the film, to have the camera in his face so often.
The devastating plight of sub-Saharan Africa was depicted far more compellingly last year in the exquisite The Constant Gardener. Fernando Meirelles took his handheld camera deep into the shanty towns to reveal a harsh reality that few Westerners know or care to admit exists. Tsotsi earnestly strives for a similar message but stumbles slightly in the attempt in the hands of a less-gifted filmmaker.
The Tsotsi DVD is packed with extras, many of which help to further illuminate some of the film’s shortcomings. First, we’re treated to two alternate endings with director commentary, neither of which works at all, so it’s comforting to know that Hood (and the studio) made the right decision in sticking with the somewhat ambiguous conclusion in the final cut. Three deleted scenes, also supplied with director commentary, are made available as well. Two, Hood explains, were cut because they were deemed too sentimental, but the other one, “Boston’s Confession,” would have added a much-needed level of complexity to a secondary character.
A short documentary, “The Making of Tsotsi, offers a few interesting tidbits about the movie’s production. A producer mentions how quickly and easily the filmmakers obtained financing because of the compelling subject matter (it took only two years from the commissioning of the script to completion of the film). Here, and also during his audio commentary, Hood discusses his disdain for the handheld shot and his love of the close-up, ostensibly allowing audiences to peer into the soul of his actors, but the film seems to suffer for it. He is quite generous in the audio commentary, offering a detailed shot-by-shot analysis and his motivations, however ill-advised at times, for staging sequences the way he did.
The DVD also includes a short film he created eight years earlier called The Storekeeper, made at the time to prove to potential financiers that he could storyboard and shoot effectively on 35mm so he could get a full-length feature made. Visually interesting and completely dialogue-free, this modest production takes a decidedly morbid turn at the end that comes right out of left field. Also included is a music video featuring the Kwaito stylings of Zola, a South African hip-hop artist who has a cameo in the film.