Jarv’s Top 10 2000-2009. Number 10: Tsotsi
What a misleading poster, and don’t get me started on the Tagline. I’m not going to spoil this film if you haven’t seen it, but I am just going to point out that Hope most certainly does not set him free.
Minor gripe aside, I’m now going to review in more depth my favourite 10 films in ascending order of the decade. If you’ve seen any of my regional lists (click on my name on the right to get them) then you should have a fair idea of what films form the bulk of this list.
Tsotsi was Gavin Hood’s Academy Award winning South African drama. At the time, it was billed as a sort of African City of God, and this billing completely mangled my expectations for the film. I suppose, in all fairness, given that it does take place in a township it does at least have something in common, but it’s a much smaller in scope more intimate film than the Brazilian monster. Tsotsi is not charting anything as epic as the Gang wars that tore Rio apart in the 70’s, it’s one man’s search for redemption.
I’m not going to plot spoil any of these films, as if you haven’t seen them then you really should see them unspoiled, but I will give as brief a plot summary of each as I can without giving anything away. In this case, the film charts the fall of a township gangster as his life collapses when he accidentally kidnaps a baby.
Tsotsi is actually Zulu for “Thug” and is based on a hugely successful novel, and I admire the craft that went in to adapting this to the screen. It can’t have been easy. To begin with, Gavin Hood is, I suspect, of English descent which will make his first language English. There are 16 national languages in South Africa- none similar to English. Secondly, as a white male of a certain age he must have grown up under apartheid and I will bet a large amount of money that he doesn’t have the first clue as to what it is like to actually live in a Soweto hell-hole. He will not have the remotest idea as to what it is to live in a corrugated iron shack with no running water (let alone electricity) in a crime plagued ghetto. That he manages to create such verisimilitude for this film, and elicit no small amount of sympathy for the characters in an alien language is a masterful accomplishment that he achieves through a sepia toned colour scheme and sense of quiet restraint that keeps the film from becoming cartoon-like or mawkish.
I mentioned City of God earlier, and it was depressingly inevitable that lazy minded critics would compare the two. It is, however, an injustice to both. Tsotsi is about relationships particularly the relationship between Tsotsi himself and the child. He’s had, to be honest, a dreadful life (brilliantly depicted in brief flashbacks) and his grim and hopeless present isn’t exactly as much fun as a barrel load of monkeys. He’s a nasty piece of work, but you can clearly tell that he has been made into a nasty piece of work and is forced by circumstances to continue in such a vein. He lacks any ability to empathise with other people, and believes in power through fear. He’s a villain.
However, the baby changes all of that. He’s forced through sheer necessity to interact with others, and gradually the more noble side of his character shines through. Overall, he’s a brilliantly drawn, fully rounded character with a properly realised redemptive story arc. However, as good as the character is, the performance given by Presley Chweneyagae is even better. He’s got a great range of expressions- and works through them all when needed. The look of bitter jealousy on his face when he burglarises the affluent area is a picture, as is the look of guilt and confusion when he realises the child needs breast-feeding. It’s a magnificent performance and his depiction of the character’s development is so good that by the climax when he’s forced into making the right decision (against all his instincts) I actually managed to feel sorry for the character.
He’s not a one man band though, being ably supported by Zenzo Ngqobe, Kenneth Nkosi and Mothusi Magano as his gang but particularly Terry Pheto as Miriam- arguably the film’s moral compass. It’s solidly and convincingly performed by every player and I find it impossible to single any of them out for particular praise or special criticism.
As I mentioned above, Tsotsi is primarily a story about redemption. It doesn’t, however, end well for anyone involved. Tsotsi is, at the end of the day, a borderline psychotic and although he does become more human throughout the course of the film, you know there is only one possible outcome. Hood, however, resists this temptation (they did shoot the predictable ending) and instead closes the film with an ambiguous finale- it’s entirely up to the viewer what happens to the main character. If, like me, the viewer is a soft touch then you hope that he’ll become a better person and eventually find some peace, but all options are open.
This is, no doubt about it, a superb film. It is debatable whether or not it is one of the best of the decade, and personally I think it is. In the mid 90’s I lived in Johannesburg and had a fantastic time. I did, however, live a thoroughly insulated life and as a result did not really have the first clue as to what Township subsistence living was like. I knew of atrocities and misery, but in an abstract way- they were never close enough to my life to influence me. Tsotsi reveals an underside of Johannesburg that I knew about, but disregarded- much in the way that people ignore the homeless. They’re there, but don’t puncture you’re awareness.
At the end of the day, Tsotsi is an emotional, honest, redemption story that’s brilliantly written and performed and truly deserves the myriad accolades heaped upon it.
Next up is the first Animation on the list: Pixar’s delightful Wall-E