Tsotsi marks one of the few times, ever, that I have seen an Academy Award nominated foreign language film before the March 5th ceremony. The films the Academy picks are always the year-end greats in those countries which we wonít see for a solid three months, if then. The fact that Cache, Kings & Queen, and Cafe Lumiere werenít even on the short list sent me reeling. However, having seen Tsotsi, I now understand why those films werenít picked. As with every other film category, you can tell instantly why the film would look good in the Academyís eyes.
In the slum villages of Johannesburg, Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) roams with his reptilian eyes piercing through every other inhabitant, silent and predatory. He takes the subway into the city with his gang to rob and murder with little thought. In one of the first scenes, Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe) stabs a man they are robbing without care. There is a flash of morality in Tsotsiís eyes that is quickly covered by cool dispassion, later riled up by Boston (an effective Mothusi Magano). On a walk in the neighboring suburbs, Tsotsi steals a car and shoots the owner. Itís not but a few minutes later that he realizes there is a child in the back seat. Shoving the baby into a shopping bag, Tsotsi (South African slang for thug) returns home and reluctantly decides to take care of it. He forces breast milk and motherly love from Miriam (an excellent Terry Pheto) by gunpoint and eventually grows what Boston calls ďdecency.Ē But not before alienating his old friend Aap (Kenneth Nkosi) and attempting to return the baby. Article continues below
Based on Athol Fugardís novel of the same name, the film doesnít rush its plot nor does it fall into cheap sappiness the way so many films of the same plot structure have. Director Gavin Hood doesnít explore the brutality of the slums with the same ferocity as Fernando Meirellesí landmark City of God, but he gets to the heart of Tsotsiís anger and indifference. Hood handles a key scene where Tsotsi witnesses his father cripple his dog and shun him from his mother with an expertís eye and in a crucial scene between Tsotsi and a homeless man, we see the oh-so-subtle shifts in character from the coldhearted opening. Chweneyagae has a distinctly lingering face that changes from malice to care with a snappy acuteness. He carries the film when, near the end, the film lingers a bit into over-sentimentality.
Itís easy to see why Tsotsi was picked by the academy: familiarity. With every film category, the Academy, almost by habit, tends to pick films that exist in known confines but are precise in their craftsmanship in those confines and , of course, doesnít say anything too un-patriotic. Tsotsi is a recognizable parable but Hood and Chweneyagae make it fresh and new (check the Gilliam-esque set designs). They take the focus away from the relationship between Tsotsi and the child and bring it directly to the change the character makes as a reaction to having to take care of the child. Even in its sentimental moments, the film is still attempting to find hope in a life of violence, a noble, if not common, goal. Like all expert adaptations, Hood has looked at his source material and seen a world beyond the words. He has my admiration, and I finally have an Oscar pick.