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

Until then,


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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

26 responses to “Jarv’s Top 10 2000-2009. Number 10: Tsotsi”

  1. Jarv says :

    Without a single swear word.


  2. Droid says :

    Good review. I’ve not seen this, but will put it on my list. I question one innaccuracy in the review though…

    If, like me, the viewer is a soft touch

    Complete and utter horseshit. You’re an absolute cunt.

  3. Jarv says :

    See- I write a mature, adult review and this is the abuse I get.

    • Droid says :

      No, I praised the review. Just pointing out the inaccuracy is all.

    • just pillow talk says :

      Clearly Droid is correct in this instance. No matter how delightful you think Wall-E is, that doesn’t automatically make you a “soft touch”. You threw that in there to get responses ya bastard. Did you laugh when you typed that?

  4. just pillow talk says :

    And yeah, it was a good review. I do need to see this at some point.

  5. Jarv says :

    I’m just misunderstood.

    *goes home crying*

  6. koutchboom says :

    I liked this movie. But just didn’t do much for me. I liked City of God so much more.

    • Jarv says :

      City of God is better. It’s unfairly compared, as they’re totally different films.

      • koutchboom says :

        Yeah I know they are. I didn’t really compare them afterward. Going into it though I had expectations.

        Like I said I did really enjoy the movie, it just didn’t stick with me.

  7. Bartleby says :

    Best review you have written Jarv, although I still have that line about “painted tart moaning like a harpooned seal” from the Critters review running through my head.

    This is an excellent film, and one that made my list of best foreign films. I agree that the poster cover is ridiculous. My wife thinks so too and suggests that it might only be better if there were an icecream cone photoshopped into his hand.

    Im looking forward to the rest of these.

  8. Bartleby says :

    oh, and I finally got my list of best documentaries up:

  9. Bartleby says :

    I think soft touch was a typo..I think he meant douche instead of touch.

  10. Jarv says :

    Cheers Jonah,

    And no. It was not a typo. I’m a kind and gentle soul.

  11. Continentalop says :

    Hmmm, so it was a soft touch those many months ago when you called me an idiot for preferring the Departed over Infernal Affairs?

  12. Continentalop says :

    On another note, I still have to see this. Man, I have a big list from the Aughts.

  13. jarv says :

    No- I said you were wrong. I wouldn’t call someone an idiot for having a different opinion.

    That’s not my style.

    I’m being most unfairly maligned here.

    Enjoy it- this is a great film.

    • Continentalop says :

      I think your exact phrase when I said I preferred The Departed was “What are you, daft?”

      But I do want to see this movie.

  14. lord bronco says :

    Great review-and don’t let your chums harass you overmuch. The one review i wrote-the one mature one-couldn’t get posted at AIBN, still bugs me.

    The particular picture is similar to this one in that you almost can’t talk about it without spoiling it-it was extremely frustrating because probably similar to this one-it’s strength lies in it’s excellent script, which is one mind-bending reveal after another.

    Also, the one I was trying to do justice for was also set in a very foreign land-and it simply could not be translated to the western world, at all.

    So you have to explain the entire history of the country to talk about stuiff, which reveals stuff…

    anyway, i will add this to my list, but i’m still reeling after trying to blast through all the great pics I’ve just heard about from the decade 10 lists

  15. jarv says :

    I see- it’s a language thing. Daft means silly/ crazy when I use it as I grew up in the north.

    I didn’t mean to say you were stupid. Misguided, but not stupid. Apologies.

    Bronco- I’m not worried about the shit, I kind of expect it.

    And it will be nothing compared to the slaughter I’m going to get for the next one.

    I may review some schlock to break up the piss taking.

    • Tom_Bando says :

      Daft-as in “Harold’s fondness for Spy Kids III showed he is a daft excuse for a reviewer,”


      “It was a daft decision for those three Merino sheep to join the Almada Trekkie Ovine Concubine—“

  16. ThereWolf says :

    Not seen this. Hopefully, it’ll roll around at some point.

    Very professional review, Jarv. Thought I was reading The Guardian for a second…

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