April 2nd, 2006 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Written and Directed by Gavin Hood

Starring Presley Chweneyagae, Mothusi Magano, Zenzo Ngqobe, Kenneth Nkosi

Sure, globalisation has given the world appalling capital flight, products made in sweatshops, unscrupulous business leaders circumventing local laws by leapfrogging national boundaries and McDonalds, but here’s an upside.

There’s not only a desire by filmgoers to see stories from places that would never see the inside of a cinema ten years ago, but the fulfilling of that desire by broad minded film producers and distributors interested in making more than just this year’s essential film tie-in line of action figures and Xbox games.

Movies that have not only stood out on the festival and arthouse circuit but often surpassed most mainstream American studio flicks over the last few years are City of God, Talk To Her, Oldboy, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Das Experiment (from Argentina, Spain, Korea, Mexico and Germany respectively).

The latest, Tsotsi, based on the book by famed South African playwright Athol Furgard, has in fact made such an impact it took home this years Best Foreign Film Oscar.

Tsotsi is David’s (Chweneyagae) street name. Afrikaaner slang for ‘thug’, the rest of his gang — who travel from the slums to the city of Johannesburg to carry out small time pick pocketing and robbery — don’t even know his real name.

Things go bad one night when the boys target a man with a fat pay packet and leave him dead. Butcher is nonplussed — anything for a payday. Boston is horrified and wants to know why Tsotsi seems to take it all in his stride. After a drunken argument, Boston hits a raw nerve in Tsotsi and he snaps, beating his friend mercilessly and running into the rain, trying to outrun the memory of an as-yet unknown childhood trauma.

In his frazzled state, Tsotsi makes a bad mistake. Carjacking a well-to-do woman outside her beautiful home, he makes off with her BMW — and her infant son in the back seat.

Before we (or Tsotsi) know what’s happened, he finds himself compelled to take care of the baby, and we’ll soon learn the terrible fate he suffered as a kid and why something so seemingly simple and everyday as the innocent needs of a child rattle him to his core. The people in Tsotsi’s life are all affected, from the distraught parents of the boy to his best friend, and the young woman he forces at gunpoint into helping him take care of the baby but with whom he ends up forging a deep connection.

As the film opens, it’s hard to believe the street criminal we’re watching will end up so transformed. Few of the actors (many of them first timers) turn in Oscar-worthy performances, but the compelling story is thanks firstly to the script and secondly to what the actors don’t say, letting pauses and expression do their talking when words are beyond them.

It’s a little heavy on symbolism and some of the milestones of the film stand out with little subtlety, but writer/director Hood manages to captures a lot of desperation, anger, heartache and even a little humour.

And the biggest achievement is this; the crime and poverty-ridden slums of South Africa are the last place you expect to find a love story of this sort, and because of both the premise and the saccharine-free, cheese-free narrative, it works its way under your defences.

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