It's a South African film about a thug who calls himself Tsotsi, which means "thug". It won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, although that doesn't mean it's a heavyweight ten-ton gorilla. That it ain't. "Not heavyweight" doesn't mean "not good", though.
Our anti-heroes are a gang of four youths in the Soweto slums, whose idea of a night out is to kill someone at random and steal his money. These are Presley Chweneyagae (Tsotsi), Kenneth Nkosi (Tsotsi's best friend), Mothusi Magano (the educated one) and Zenzo Ngqobe ("Butcher"). One day Tsotsi is car-jacking, as you do, and he shoots the woman who'd been driving it. All in a day's work, right? Well, as he's going through the car afterwards for things to steal, Tsotsi finds a baby.
Tsotsi steals the baby. He even starts looking after it. Things change.
It's based on a South African novel from 1960, which means it was set in the apartheid era. Gavin Hood wasn't yet born when it was first published, but he's adapted it into this script (turning its racial divisions into ones of class and poverty) and I believe he usually writes the films he directs. His debut, A Reasonable Man, he also produced and starred in. Here, I think it's the storyline that gives the film its power. The direction doesn't always take us inside the characters, if you know what I mean. I felt as if I were being held at arm's length. Chweneyagae in particular rarely shows us much of what's going on inside, although there are oddly charming moments when he's not being inscrutable. If anything, he's a bit of a blank.
The film wrong-footed me, but only through my own fault. I'd been setting myself up to expect something more extreme. Everything I'd heard had made this sound bigger than it is, both in the drama and the violence, whereas in fact you could this to your mother. You'd hardly call Tsotsi's world pleasant, obviously, but the film develops a strong moral core and it would be silly to classify this as a gangster movie or anything like that. It's simpler and more profound than such a description would suggest. It's a tale of the evolving feelings of a man who'd shut himself off from them.
Also, crucially, the film doesn't cheat. It doesn't try to have a Disney ending, which would have been absurd... although that said, apparently there were two alternative endings on the DVD, both more violent than the one they eventually went with. Nevertheless the film doesn't try to pretend that Tsotsi's turning into an angel, or even that he's likely to become employable. Whether or not his reasons for wanting to steal things are becoming less psychopathic, he's still living in a world where the tools for "doing a job" are guns and knives.
One interesting point in the casting is that Gavin Hood has avoided populating his film with stereotypical hard cases. Our anti-heroes aren't being played by beasts in human form. Instead they seem fairly normal, which is probably saying something in itself. Chweneyagae looks almost baby-faced.
1. One of the more powerful and understated elements in this film is HIV/AIDS. A certain character in the flashbacks could easily have had a different disease, of course, but they probably didn't.
3. More interestingly though, his next movie's going to be Ender's Game, into which he's also incorporating elements of Ender's Shadow. I've just looked up how many novels Orson Scott Card's done in his Ender universe. Great Scott. Mind you, look how many other series the guy's written too. How does he find time to eat and sleep?
4. It was slightly jarring to watch this back to back with The Sarah Jane Adventures story Sky, which also has a young black man getting lumbered with a baby. The difference in tone could give you whiplash.
It's a fine film. If you're not expecting Children of God or anything similarly in your face, it's excellent. Well, it won that Oscar and was also nominated for a Golden Globe, among other awards. It finds moral authority where you wouldn't expect it and refuses to Hollywood up its story. It's not sentimental. Look at the pipe-dwelling children. Look at the old cripple who wets himself. It's surprisingly quiet, given its subject matter, and I suspect it's the kind of film that unfolds further on rewatching. It's excellent.