Adapted from the novel by Athol Fugard, Tsotsi (which recently won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film) is set in the sprawling Soweto slums and emerging middle-class suburbs of Johannesburg, South Africa. The title comes from the central character's nickname, Afrikaans slang for "thug."
Emotionally, Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) is a loner. He cares about nothing but his own survival, and that only dimly. He runs his small gang of hoodlums not because he's the biggest or the strongest or even the most natively vicious, but because he's the most fearless. In flashback we will eventually learn that Tsotsi was once an innocent child named David, whose loving mother died in the virulent African AIDS epidemic and whose cruel father threw him away like a sack of garbage. David lived for a time in the shelter of a construction pipe. It's not clear what he initially did for food and clothing, but he obviously soon evolved into a criminal who strong-armed from others what he required to survive. Today he lives in a corrugated tin shack without running water and rises each morning to steal what he needs to endure till night.
Tsotsi's life is wrenched in a radically unexpected direction when he carjacks a young woman trying to navigate a balky security gate at her prosperous home. Provoked that the woman tries to claw her way into the car after he's commandeered it, he guns her down and speeds away. Shortly later he discovers why the woman tried to get back in the car. She was trying to rescue her infant son who was asleep in his bassinet on the back seat.
Tsotsi might simply have abandoned the child or left it at a church or in any public place where the baby would soon be discovered and cared for. Instead, Tsotsi decides that the baby is "mine." He tries to diaper the child with newspapers and feed him from a can of condensed milk. When these efforts prove largely unsuccessful, Tsotsi forces his way into the home of a young mother named Miriam (Terry Pheto) and commands her to nurse the kidnapped baby alongside her own son. Tsotsi's hope for redemption, of course, lies in the possibility that he might cease terrorizing Miriam and finally find his way to act in the baby's best interests.
Several narrative aspects of Tsotsi fail to ring true. After the subway murder, one of Tsotsi's gang members becomes profoundly upset. The film tries to cover itself by suggesting that the obviously educated Boston (Mothusi Magano) is an alcoholic former teacher. But that hardly accounts for what Boston is doing hanging out with the likes of Tsotsi and his minions in the first place. And Boston's attempt to lecture Tsotsi about "decency" seems to emerge from thematic pretext rather than narrative context. Comparably, Miriam's reaction to Tsotsi's intrusion seems thematically willed rather than artistically earned. Miriam is a character of great gentleness, obvious intelligence and heartbreaking compassion, but I still think she would feel terrified of Tsotsi and violated by him.
I hasten to extend due credit to the two leads in this movie. Huge segments of this film unfold without the benefit of dialogue and require Chweneyagae and Pheto to communicate a swirl of emotions with their eyes and the tiniest of everyday gestures, challenges to which they both rise brilliantly. Pheto, in particular, is an actress I hope to see again and again. Moreover, I can't help but root for a picture that appeals so directly to my spiritual instincts about grace and the vast potentials of the mysterious human soul. And yet, I admit that Tsotsi didn't stir me the way other movies with that theme have. Tsotsi's evolution seems too rapid and too thinly motivated. And I fret greatly that such a judgment may arise less from the film itself and perhaps more from the unwilled critical hardening of my own post-Katrina heart -- in which case, I too, need hope for redemption.