Do not be fooled by its foreign title, nearly unpronounceable to the American tongue, Tsotsi (pronounced sot’see) is an accessible film, and will likely find mainstream audiences. Due to its recent Academy Award win for Best Foreign Language Film, and its shocking victory in Toronto (where it picked up the questionably illustrious People’s Choice Award), Tsotsi should entice viewers with a middlebrow sensibility.
It is not difficult to discover why it has been universally embraced; it is crowd pleasing due to its sympathetic (if not simplistic) performances, sentimentality and utter familiarity despite the distant locale of South Africa. With its conventional narrative paradigm and overly humanized characters, Tsotsi may perhaps be the most affable gangster film in recent memory, but that’s not a compliment. It is so preoccupied with being a feel-good film about ruffian redemption, class conflict and poverty that it overshadows the brutal, gritty bleakness that remains in the peripheral of the wide-screen camera lens.
Tsotsi focuses directly on one of the hooligans plucked from the urban setting of Johannesburg, South Africa. After a game of dice, where the titular thug incorrectly states that 4 + 5 = 11, and a scene of unmitigated inhumanity where he knifes a subway passenger for a few dollars with his gang buddies, the gangsters congregate over a table of drinks at a bar. The music is thumping, the alcohol is trickling down their throats and one of the gang members states his disgust in Tsotsi’s unapologetic aloofness to murder.
‘Tsotsi,’ the Zulu word for ‘thug,’ is the appellation that the protagonist had adopted. He claims to have no name from birth, immediately setting off bells indicating a boy with an oppressive past and identity problems. Oh, and the flashback within the first 15 minutes should clear up any questions about this character’s past (the flashbacks come fast and heavy-handed).
Tsotsi, in his red Chuck Taylors (a sure symbol of poverty and edginess), responds to this by violently kicking the gang member to a bloody pulp. The eponymous gangster runs from the bar and reaches an upper-middle class neighborhood. As a BMW, a sign of privilege, pulls into a driveway Tsotsi carjacks the vehicle and shoots the middle-aged owner upon her resistance. Soon afterward, the gurgled cooing of a toddler forces Tsotsi to turn around and discover an infant in the backseat.
Unsurprisingly, the stranded baby mirrors some of his childhood afflictions and the newborn triggers a few repressed memories which forces Tsotsi to tear off his mask of anger and reconsider his lifestyle. Fortunately, despite the presence of a baby, the film avoids maudlin antics and cuteness exploitation. In an interview with The Beacon, the gregarious Gavin Hood (director and screenwriter of Tsotsi) was comfortably sprawled out on his hotel couch, ready to talk about his film, which he refers to as “a mythic, universal tale.” During the discussion he exclaimed: “You never want to bore your audience. I am a storyteller and I like to believe I have a respect for the viewer.”
It is evident, however, that he does not trust that the viewer has seen many films before, or that they can form connections within the film without it explicitly stating how everything adds up. Nevertheless, much to Hood’s credit, Tsotsi is never tedious or unentertaining, it is simply unsurprising.Many films recently have overused a single word to make the implicit meaning within the film more obvious, a ‘subtextual key.’ Instead of leaving the audience to comprehend the message without any unnecessary help, the ‘subtextual key’ is given to the audience multiple times to open a door which is not even locked. Just as Batman Begins did with “fear” and Munich did with “soul,” Tsotsi has found its ‘key’ in the adjective “decent.”
Even though the films attempt to accomplish different goals, comparisons to another foreign film focusing on young criminals, Fernando Mierelles’ City of God, are inevitable. Essentially, Tsotsi is the humanizing of Lil Ze, the threatening and temperamental villain of God, yet Tsotsi is fundamentally absent of this daunting menace. Presley Chweneyagae, the baby-faced actor who plays Tsotsi, gives a performance that is effective yet only contains two faces. In his “menacing” moments he dons an eye-brow tilting glare, and in the soft scenes, he replaces his mean fa