Tsotsi is an extremely powerful foreign film about a teenage gangster (Presley Chweneyagae) living in the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa. He stays above the poverty line by heading a ruthless gang that assaults rich people at gunpoint and then pockets their money. After fleeing from an abusive home at an early age and growing up on the streets, Tsotsi (nickname for ‘thug’) develops a ragged edge that allows him to live a corrupt life without the slightest tinge of remorse. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and he’d rather bite than be bitten.
After beating up one of his gang members for prying into his personal life, Tsotsi goes on the prowl for another victim. He finds it when he spots a woman stepping out of her silver BMW, trying to fix the faulty electrical gate guarding her mansion. Seeing the situation as a prime opportunity for a carjacking, he shoots at her and speeds away. He thinks he has made the perfect getaway, until he hears screechy cries emitting from the backseat, and is horrified to find a 3-month-old staring back at him.
This startling new discovery causes him to crash the car, and run away with as much money as he can grab. But the crying persists, and he can’t seem to walk away, no matter how hard he tries. He places the infant in a large, brown shopping bag and heads home to his tiny, ant-infested living space. It is clear early on that fatherhood is not a role that suits him well, as he places a newspaper and a sock on the baby in place of a diaper. When the baby is hungry, Tsotsi follows a young, beautiful mother named Miriam (Terry Pheto) and holds her at gunpoint until she nurses the abducted child.
Tsotsi is not an easy movie to watch, but it grabs you by the collar and never eases its grip. Closed-minded people like to believe that change is impossible, and that someone with all the makings of a social defect has no shot of crawling out of the dark. The film challenges that viewpoint by showing a menacing criminal that seems completely hopeless, until an unexpected incident threatens to humanize him. Director Gavin Hood keeps the movie moving at a breezy, unsentimental clip with a fast-paced, gritty style similar to City Of God, while energetic Kwaito music blasts throughout the picture. He keeps Tsotsi away from pretentious narration that tells us what to feel, and instead lets things unfold naturally.
The lead character, played with impressive raw talent by newcomer Presley Chweneyagae, serves as both the hero and the villain of the story. His brown eyes have a maniacal glare, where he seems like he could either snap or burst into tears at any given moment. The central storyline is watching Tsotsi try and raise this child and change into a better man, while the parents struggle desperately to find the baby he has stolen. He is not a good man, but he isn’t the caricature of a heartless bad guy either. Tsotsi is an honest depiction of a man who may have gone astray, but like the rest of us, has a chance for something better. The road to redemption is often paved with potholes.
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