When we first meet him in his bleak Soweto slum, the young gangster nicknamed Tsotsi (“thug”) is little more than a predatory animal. Like a panther, he dispassionately stalks and pounces upon his victims, taking their belongings and, if need be, their lives. He seems so devoid of human emotion that it would be a stretch to find him wicked or evil.
As we come to learn, life has been brutal to Tsotsi. He is without family and has suffered extreme deprivations. His small gang is his only remaining tie to mankind and, after they share in a particularly chilling kill, one of them wonders whether Tsotsi has any trace of decency left, or whether he even remembers his given name. Then one night, as the result of a savage carjacking in a wealthy neighborhood, Tsotsi comes into unexpected possession of an infant boy. The rest of the movie is spent observing his handling of this delicate and vulnerable loot, and the reassessments he is forced to make as he reconnects with the human race.
Tsotsi is based on the novel of the same name by Athol Fugard. The movie was written and directed by Gavin Hood, of whom I had not previously heard. His film is powerful in its straightforwardness, beautiful despite its miserable landscape, and consise in its storytelling. No words or shots are wasted here. The camera lingers exactly as long as it needs to, permitting the things communicated in silence just enough beats to hit home.
In the title role — his first in the movies — Presley Chweneyagae does not have much to say, and the character he plays is not expressive. Nevertheless, Chweneyagae powerfully conveys Tsotsi’s instinctive aggression and reclusion through his body language and eyes as he slinks through township streets and train stations.
Countering this wild isolation with her tenderness and compassion is Terry Pheto, who plays Miriam, a widowed mother, seamstress, and aspiring artist who creates mobiles from rusted metal and glass. She cautiously beams her nurturing femininity in Tsotsi’s direction, and her gestures, her words, her art, and her pleasant home give him alternatives to consider.
Tsotsi is not an overt “message” movie, but it holds vital lessons for our ruthless and violent world. This is high-quality work, neatly made, and engaging both to watch and to listen to (for its vibrant soundtrack and fascinating languages). It’s startling to think of how little of this part of the world we have seen in the movies. I liked it very much, and rate it four out of five stars at Netflix.