- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006

Thug lifers may seem like an American institution, but the young Johannesburg gangster in “Tsotsi” is every bit as tough as our homegrown hoodlums.

Writer/director Gavin Hood’s “Tsotsi,” based on an Athol Fugard novel, follows a teen on the cusp of complete moral collapse. His redemption, more like a baby step back toward humanity, comes from the quasi-fatherhood into which he stumbles.

It’s an arc that glides a little too smoothly on its generously greased rails, but Mr. Hood’s ability to coax textured performances from his young cast explains why “Tsotsi” walked away with the best foreign film Oscar on Sunday.

Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae, a low-key wonder) leads a small gang of hoods who, during one nauseating sequence, leave one of their victims dead.

When someone questions why the man had to die, Tsotsi erupts, beating his cohort into a bloody silence. Still seething, Tsotsi leaves the pack and, sometime later, carjacks a young woman from a neighborhood separated from Tsotsi’s slums by security bars. But the car has a hidden passenger — the woman’s baby, snoozing silently in the back seat.

Tsotsi could drop the baby off at the nearest home or police station, or just leave it by the side of the road.

He’s proven so cruel by this point that we could easily see him tossing the child out the car window.

Instead, he takes the baby to his shack of a home.

Tsotsi doesn’t know the first thing about caring for an infant, and the scenes where he tends to the baby’s needs would be comical if the baby weren’t shrieking in discomfort.

He eventually bullies a local mother (Terry Phetos) into breast-feeding the child, sparking an unusual relationship that hints at something salvageable in Tsotsi.

Over the next hour we learn a bit more about Tsotsi’s own childhood, a harrowing time when his mother died of AIDS and his father managed his anger by brutalizing his son. One terrifying flashback finds Tsotsi’s father paralyzing the family dog with one blow.

“Tsotsi,” told in native South African tongue that occasionally seems to overlap with English, pulls us along as its anti-hero considers the next crucial step in his life.

Mr. Hood immerses us in Johannesburg’s cruelest neighborhoods, all the while draping exhilarating indigenous music over the background. The story already vibrates with fear and longing, and the juxtaposition between the throbbing beats and dialogue-free sequences creates an added layer of tension.

Mr. Chweneyagae handles his character’s subtle transformation as if he had worked out Tsotsi’s psychology through an extended stage run. It’s astounding to consider how such a slip of an actor could project such an aura of danger and remorselessness in his earliest scenes.

“Tsotsi” itself is shrouded in a pall of initial hopelessness, one that eventually parts to reveal that in even the darkest of hearts are buried the seeds of salvation.

***1/2

TITLE: “Tsotsi”

RATING: R (Disturbing images, extreme violence and profanity)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Gavin Hood based on a novel by Athol Fugard. Cinematography by Lance Gewer

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes

WEB SITE: www.tsotsimovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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