A review of “Tsotsi” by Jeanne Aufmuth


Stars: ** 1/2

Rating: R for violent brutality.  In Zulu and Afrikaans with English subtitles

Run Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes



This year’s foreign language Oscar winner from South Africa is a vivid yet calculated portrayal of a cold-hearted criminal with a hidden heart.

Tsotsi -- meaning “thug” or “gangster” – is a fitting description for our felonious “hero”. Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) is a heartless and callow man-child who would just as soon shoot you through the heart as shake your hand.

In dramatically senseless fashion Tsotsi wanders into the land of Johannesburg plenty and steals a BMW at gunpoint, only to find he has fled the site with an infant strapped into the back seat. Gulp.

Anxious to protect his ghetto rep and decidedly uncomfortable with returning to the scene of the crime Tsotsi endeavors to hide the baby. Newborns aren’t the most discreet houseguests and this one demands food and accoutrements with verbal gusto.

Comic moments ensue; Tsotsi changing a newspaper diaper, Tsotsi offering baby adult sustenance and putting on an aggressive front for drop-in gang members.

Desperation finally forces Tsotsi to seek help from a local seamstress named Miriam (Terry Pheto) who is caring for her own infant. Tsotsi holds her hostage and insists that she nurse “his” baby, threatening to kill her if she refuses to cooperate.

A long history of abuse and rejection has a stranglehold on Tsotsi but no one is completely immune to the virtue of a child. Or so playwright Athol Fugard (on whose book the film is based) would have you believe.

At this point “Tsotsi” loses its edge and the gritty deprivation that underscores its violent township sensibility. Mindless killing machine goes soft under the influence of innocence. Dyed-in-the-wool gangster discovers dignity under the tutelage of a good woman. And so on and so forth.

Both Chweneyagae and Pheto maintain a high standard of conscious fortitude despite director Gavin Hood’s incessant need to punctuate his narrative with patent strokes of exaggeration. Raw energy is proffered by a steady diet of native Kwaito music.

I’m as susceptible to the quasi-weeper as the next fan but I like to work for my emotional triumphs. “Tsotsi” is an affecting film about sorrow and triumph that delivers redemption by the shovel-full.