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Movie Review: Tsotsi

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TsotsiLess than an hour ago, I filed out of the theater with a friend and the rest of the surprisingly large audience for Tsotsi. My friend and I walked in silence for a minute. Finally, I turned to him and simply said, “Wow.” His reply, “That was intense!” To say that Tsotsi is an emotional film would be a gross understatement.

Synopsis: A tough-as-nails gangster finds redemption.

I’ll elaborate a bit for you. A young gangster named Tsotsi has grown up on the streets of Johannesburg, South Africa. He spends his time leading a small group of punks in various criminal activities around town. After a conflict with one of his subordinates, Tsotsi leaves his neighborhood in a fit of rage and ends up in a violent encounter with a suburban woman. The encounter ends with Tsotsi driving away in the woman’s car, finding a secluded area of town, and rummaging through the vehicle for valuables. Tsotsi is presented with an unexpected surprise in the back seat — the woman’s baby. Lacking the callousness to leave the baby behind, Tsotsi carries it home with him. Throughout the next six days of his life, the plot’s duration, the young gangster is forced to face the consequences of his violent lifestyle and re-evaluate his own moral code.

The story of Tsotsi was more than entertaining; the heart warming, life-affirming segments were extremely touching and capable of restoring my faith in humanity. On the other side of the coin, the dark segments depicting the violence of ghetto life in Johannesburg were disturbing enough to make this viewer uncomfortable at times.

I think this depth of emotion is one of the film’s greatest achievements. When the story was supposed to shock and horrify, it did. When it was supposed to be beautiful or cute, it was more adorable than a puppy licking a laughing baby. When it was sad, it was capable of making a grown man cry. Or perhaps that was just me.

All of the core roles in Tsotsi were well above par. This is especially noteworthy considering that this was the first film for many of the performers, including the lead. The three characters most central to the narrative were incredible! Nambitha Mpumlwana’s portrayal of the young girl that Tsotsi begins to visit was spot on. She masterfully blended concerned mother, beauty (as in she who tames the beast), and a hint of love interest. The cripple, played by Owen Sejake, was equally memorable, especially considering his entire performance was delivered in a few short pieces of screen time. Finally, Presley Chweneyagae’s first acting role as Tsotsi‘s lead has cemented his position on this movie fan’s list of actors to keep an eye out for. He was fearsome, pitiable, and lovable in turn (or sometimes all at once!) while being believable the entire time.

I don’t have much to say about editing, cinematography, and such. The visual quality of the movie was better than much of mainstream Hollywood cinema. Nothing particular struck me as above average, although the locations used for the film were quite gorgeous in the starkness of their contrasts.

The soundtrack deserves a special mention. Containing a multitude of songs by South Africa’s hip-hop superstar Zola, the score had me bouncing to some of the deep, tribal beats and I usually can’t stand hip-hop! The music selection was the perfect choice as a backdrop for both the location and the events.

It’s no wonder Tsotsi picked up the Oscar for Best Foreign Film this year. The movie fulfilled every one of its promises. It entertained and, to an extent, even educated. I was reminded of great movies like City of God and Amores Perros, and I would recommend Tsotsi to lovers of foreign film, independent movies, tales of moral conflict, and those interested in a peek at different cultures that is not always sunshine and roses.

The Upside: Great story, exceptional performance by the lead, and a fantastic soundtrack.

The Downside: The average moviegoer may not be able to connect with the main character with his violent past. Also, the movie is subtitled, a warning to you “non-reader types” and of absolutely no consequence to the rest of us.

On the Side: Zola, the hip-hop artist who lent so many great songs to the movie’s score, also had his first acting role in this film. He plays Fela, the other gangster that Tsotsi’s cohorts consider working for.

Final Grade: B

Film Stats:
Starring: Presley Chweneyagae, Nambitha Mpumlwana, and Owen Sejake
Directed by: Gavin Hood
Writing Credits: Athol Fugard (novel) Gavin Hood (written by)
Release Date: February 24, 2006  (US and Canada)
Country: UK / South Africa
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some strong violent content.
Run Time: 94 min.
Studio: Miramax (US/Canada Distribution)

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