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Cinema Signal:

The novel by Athol Fugard

. "Tsotsi"

A film based on a successful novel doesn't necessarily give it an advantage in the Academy of Motion Pictures' Best Foreign Language Film competition, for which this one has emerged as a nominee. But, when the material is from the pen of as powerful a dramatist as Athol Fugard (1980), and when it's adapted so effectively, it's a film worth seeing for more reasons than awards. Writer-director Gavin Hood has crafted a portrait of a gang leader discovering responsibility for his actions from an unexpected source.

Tsotsi [pronounced, sut-see] (Presley Chweneyagae) is a small time gang leader known only by his tag, which translates to "black hooligan." He leads a small group of local hoodlums who look to him for direction and leadership in the choice of nightly escapades to satisfy their taste for crime. Tsotsi is both vulnerable and charismatic. He maintains respect by the audacity of his reactions when he's challenged. He's disturbed when one of his men, appropriately named Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), sticks an ice pick into a man on a train while robbing him. The act is psycopathic in its excess, but Tsotsi finally accepts it.

What Tsotsi can't accept is one of his own crew, Boston (Mothusi Magano), condemning it publically as an indecent act. He demonstrates his outrage by spilling his own blood on a nightclub table. This is too much of a rebellion for the crime boss, and Tsotsi beats his ex-pal's face to a pulp.

Tsotsi seems to be playing a role in order to maintain his status and control, but in private reveals other dimensions. He doesn't much respect a crippled man in the train station, but he's intrigued enough by his circumstances in life that he follows him across town to his secluded hangout in an effort to understand the spirit behind living such a limited life. The impaired resonates with Tsotsi.

Later that night, he ends up alone, in front of a wealthy home, and watches as a woman drives up and can't get her gate opener to work. Tsotsi seizes the opportunity for a little carjacking, shoots the woman when she protests, and drives off. Then, we discover why she protested instead of relinquishing the car. It comes from a peep in the backseat, where an infact boy is nestled.

Alarmed and confused, the thief ends up abandoning the car on the highway and taking the boy home, as his own, his valued possession. Awkwardly, he feeds the child, cleans him up, and puts his care ahead of any other consideration in his life. He enlists the aid of a local mother, Miriam (Terry Pheto) at gunpoint. But, the gang society he leads doesn't just go away. Somehow, he has to deal with the expectations and dependency of his pals who only a day or so ago were the foundations of his life.

From this point on, the story follows Tsotsi's evolution as he slowly adopts a heretofore unknown sense of who he is in relation to others in society. He's forced to confront the demons of his childhood in a slow, logical path calling for courage against his fears, awakening to his truer self. Presley Chweneyagae, while not exactly a commanding figure in his first film role, exposes the fears that underlie the appearance of calm and deliberation. He juggles his character's conflicting inpulses with a natural calm. But when his six-day process of new realizations comes together, will it resolve into a clean redemption, or will the consequences of a vicious criminal life cancel the man's own rebirth?

The subject and setting evokes elements of Fernando Meirelles' "The City of God" but differs from it in significant ways. The languages spoken are Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans, with the occasional english term mixing in. The music is Kwaito, the sound of South African townships. The photography by cinematographer Lance Gewer is as stunning as the much higher budgeted "A Very Long Engagement" from France. All in all, as well crafted a drama with sociological resonance as any Best Foreign Language Film I can remember. Click for full list of movie 

                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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                                                           ~~ Beth M. 

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Presley Chweneyagae as Tsotsi
The social evolution of a hoodlum.
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