Sometimes, Formulaic Storylines Do Work
Tsotsi / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | July 19, 2006 | Comments ()
Set in Johannesburg, the opening scenes of Tsotsi present the film’s title character, the leader of a vicious South African gang of thieves, murdering a middle-aged man on the subway for making the mistake of flashing a wad of cash. Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) shows no remorse for the senseless killing and makes a bruised potato-sack of a fellow gang member who wonders if they’ve gone too far and questions the decency of Tsotsi’s motives. In an effort to push aside any guilt that might have briefly bubbled to the surface while his fists were planted in his friend’s eye sockets, Tsotsi quickly finds another victim, shooting a woman in her stomach and taking off with her BMW, only to discover an infant in the backseat once he’s driven a safe distance away.
“Tsotsi” is Johannesburg slang for hood or thug, referring to brutal South African hoodlums who have no real tribal connections but instead take their cues from violent American gangster flicks that eschew morality for a quick bullet to the face. Tsotsi, who ran away from an abusive, neglectful home, fits that Scarface mold until he decides to care for the infant, who has a way of stirring his conscience, slowly turning his moral compass due north. Initially, he maintains the thuggish façade, but his inner trigger finger is reluctant; he finds purpose in the child, a reason for living beyond simple nihilism. Tsotsi affectionately carries the child around in a shopping bag; names him David, believing that the shackles of South African poverty will be this baby’s Goliath; and begins feeling a new sense of hope that builds in him a suddenly reverent view of his own insignificant place in South Africa.
At its core,Tsotsi is no more than a simple tale of redemption, the story of a man who finds meaning in a fleeting stint as surrogate father — elements common to any run-of-the-mill family film about a swinging, womanizing bachelor who turns his life around when his illegitimate child shows up on his doorstep. Tsotsi, however, is set in a place burdened with hideous subtexts — Apartheid, abandonment, gang warfare — and morality is viewed not through a Disneyfied lens, but in Nietzschian terms. Through the course of the film, Tsotsi’s value system changes from that of weak-willed “slave morality” to a noble “master morality,” and his actions begin to be measured on a scale of good vs. bad rather than good vs. evil.
Chweneyagae’s performance is transcendent and heartbreaking; he maintains a thuggish scowl throughout the film, but his eyes soften in lockstep with his heartening vision of humanity. He is the proverbial Grinch; his heart grows three sizes too big, but his expression never changes. He can never return his gifts, however, because it would betray his persona, call into question his usefulness as gang leader. And so he tries to divert them to David and to others he has wronged, knowing that — at some point — his newfound redemption will compel him to selflessness, to return the child to where he belongs, a place where there is no Goliath to slay.
Despite winning this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film, Tsotsi (out on DVD this week) is as well-trodden as century-old studio formulas, unfolding almost just as you expect. Unlike its domestic counterpart, Crash, however, it doesn’t hammer you over the head with platitudes and a glossy Hollywood cast using the film as an anti-racist public service announcement. Indeed, the dialogue (written by Gavin Hood, who adapted the movie from Athol Fugard’s novel and also directed) is spare, stripped of feel-good nuggets of sentiment, and Chweneyagae somehow mines a compassion not usually found in a cold-blooded, murdering ruffian. And if Chweneyagae fails to elicit your sympathy, the heart-wrenching voice of Vusi Mahlasela may bring you to your knees before the credits roll.
Though most people who haven’t already seen the film will probably never bother watching Tsotsi, I hope that, in a few years,when Hollywood transplants the story to Compton and casts Nick Cannon as Thug and brings in Eve as the love interest, you’ll at least have enough respect for the source material to avoid the blasphemous remake. I suspect, however, that mine is an empty request: Themes of redemption are the stuff of Hollywood movies, and not, I’m afraid, of their audiences.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives in a blue house with his wife in a hippie colony/college town in upstate New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.