The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, October 25, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Tsotsi

Originally posted 2/24/06
Full review behind the jump


: Gavin Hood
: Gavin Hood, based on the novel by Athol Fugard
: Peter Fudakowski
: Presley Chweneyagae, Mothusi Magano, Zenzo Ngqobe, Kenneth Nkosi, Rapulana Seiphemo, Nambitha Mpumlwana, Terry Pheto, Jerry Mofokeng

In the end Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) will cry, but I think it’s not from sadness. It’s exhaustion, because he’s finally stopped running. At nine, as his mother lay dying from a plague still misunderstood in much of Africa, and his father raged with drink and abuse (and, perhaps, his own complicity in his wife’s condition), he ran from home. He ran away even from his name, and now the name he gives himself means “Thug” in the mishmash street language of the Johannesburg slums. And when he steals a rich woman’s car (Nambitha Mpumlwana), shooting her in the belly before he has time to contemplate why she’s so desperate to get back in, the discovery he makes prompts renewed flight, because the woman’s baby is in the back seat.

These are the broad circumstances of
Tsotsi, Gavin Hood’s adaptation of an early novel by the acclaimed playwright Athol Fugard. It is South Africa’s submission for the 2005 Foreign Language Film Academy Award, and it’s easy to see why it was rewarded with a nomination, as its fable-like structure and ability to communicate in universal emotions transcends language and creates a deeply-felt movie experience. You don’t need to understand South Africa, you just need to understand being poor and without hope.

Tsotsi commands a street gang now, young and with murderous intensity. We watch as, with pitiless silence, a mugging becomes a killing right in the middle of a packed subway car, and the bodies are so close together that the corpse does not fall until the train empties at the station. He lives in a one-room shack with a corrugated roof – to reach it he must climb a jagged pile of concrete and rubble. The radio he dances to runs off a car battery. This is an improvement in his circumstances, we see that after running away he essentially grew up in a concrete pipe. A pile of them sits on a hillside – perhaps abandoned with a long-ago construction project, they’ve been neglected for so long they’ve become an ad hoc orphan community where the 12 and 13-year-olds are the parents. Visiting it again, he points the upper-left pipe out to the current tenants and says “
That one used to be mine”.

In this way the film is reminiscent of the South American City of God, paying keen attention to the slums – so close to the prosperous city they can gaze on its towers, and within a teeming mix of poverty, color, music, crime, drink, despair, ambition and struggle. As chaotic as it is there’s life here. Hood does not show the flair of City’s Fernando Meirelles, but he has different ambitions – more focused in story and broad in theme.

When does Tsotsi make the decision to take the baby? Is it when he first gets out of the car, ready to abandon it? Surely there was no thought of returning it – by necessity the habits of his life have been to never go back to the scene of the crime. Before he found himself with a baby to protect, Tsotsi knew only how to get what he needed at the end of a gun or shank. He tries this still, even trying to get breast milk with his pistol. But this and many other encounters over the next few days force a change in his outlook. This quirk of fate has unlocked memories he’s refused to face, and reacquainted him with choices he forgot were available.

And as all this goes on, the frantic, crippled mother and her husband (Rapulana Seiphemo), who yearns to give her hope but knows the odds, watch as a police investigation proceeds with professionalism, but agonizing slowness. Having seen from every angle the urban jungle Tsotsi and the baby have vanished into, we know without the cops needing to say it just how difficult this search will be.

It’s a sign of confidence that a young filmmaker can allow so much range of tone and pacing in one movie. You not only have the jittery energy of the streets (the soundtrack is propulsive), but quiet, almost contemplative vignettes where Tsotsi meets one after another in a parade of characters, and the way he responds to them at the beginning of the movie is far different from the end. The film speaks in simple gestures and situations, and it might sometimes feel awkward or heavy in doing so, but when you see how such simple needs and motives can pile on one another to create a home break-in charged with potential catastrophes, it’s a tribute to Hood’s storytelling chops.

I think as audiences we urgently need to believe that heartless characters can be redeemed, and that some needs (the love of a mother, the vulnerability of an infant, the struggle to find a place in the world) are so fundamental they overpower pettiness and anger. The feelings those things stir are the feelings you will leave Tsotsi with.


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