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Tsotsi (8/10)

by Tony Medley

Based on the book by acclaimed author and playwright Athol Fugard, this traces six days in the life of a young gang leader who steals a woman’s car—unaware that her baby is in the back seat. Pumping with the high energy of Zola’s ‘Kwaito’ music, “Tsotsi,” an extraordinary and gritty contemporary portrait of ghetto life set amidst the sprawling Johannesburg townships.

In a shantytown on the edges of Johannesburg, South Africa, 19-year-old Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) has repressed any memory of his past, including his real name.  “Tsotsi” simply means “thug” or “gangster” in the street language of the ghetto.  Orphaned at an early age and compelled to claw his way to adulthood alone, Tsotsi has lived a life of extreme social and psychological deprivation. A feral being with scant regard for the feelings of others, he has hardened himself against any feelings of compassion. Ruled only by impulse and instinct, he is fueled by the fear he instills in others. With no name, no past and no plan for the future, he exists only in an angry present. Tsotsi heads up his own posse of social misfits: Boston, a failed teacher (Mothusi Magano), Butcher, a cold-blooded assassin (Zenzo Ngqobe) and Aap, a dimwitted heavy (Kenneth Nkosi.)

After he steals a car and shoots the woman driving it, he crashes it, only to find that her baby is in the back seat. Instead of abandoning it, he takes it to his shack and tries to keep it alive. He finds a young mother of an infant, Miriam (Terry Pheto), only a few years older than Tsotsi, to be the baby’s wet nurse. She has recently lost her husband and lives alone with her baby, making ends meet as a seamstress.

Hiding nothing from the audience, writer-director Gavin Hood shows Miriam suckling the baby. This is one of the few times in movie history that I can remember that a woman’s breast has been bared onscreen for the purpose for which it was intended. Frankly, from a male perspective, this is as sexy, if not more, than the purposes for which breasts have been bared onscreen hitherto. I doubt if Pheto was actually lactating during the production of this movie, but it certainly looked real, and the infant was sucking away.

All the while that the responsibility for the baby is changing Tsotsi in a fundamental way, the baby’s parents are searching frantically for it.

            This is a quintessential psychological thriller that had me wanting to leave at the outset, such an unappealing, unlikeable protagonist is Tsotsi, so vicious his actions, even after we come to understand why he became what he is.  But it is such a compelling, realistic rendition of life as we don’t know it that it held me in its grasp and I’m glad I stayed to the end.

In Zulu, Xhosa, and Afrikaans with subtitles.