December 2, 2006 -- “Tsotsi,” winner of the Academy Award for best foreign film in 2005, was still in contention for U.S. critics awards this year because the film was released in the U.S. in 2006. After finally seeing this film, it is easy to see why it won the Oscar last year. This story of reluctant redemption is as emotionally powerful as any film released in the past couple of years.
The film tells the story of a young thief, Tsotsi (played by Presley Chweneyagae), who is headed on a path toward self-destruction. He is filled with hate and is reckless in his pursuit of other people's money. He has repressed the memory of his past, including his real name. The name Tsotsi means thug or gangster in the language of the South African ghettos where he lives. The leader of a gang of young thugs, we see him murder a man early in the film. Then he beats up one of his best friends, Boston (Mothusi Magano) who points out that Tsotsi seems to lack any sense of morality or decency.
After being shamed by Boston, Tsotsi begins to re-examine his life, however. During another robbery, he makes a momentous decision. He steals a car with a baby in the back seat. After abandoning the car, he decides to take care of the baby himself. He forces a mother, Miriam (Terry Pheto), to breast feed the infant. Later, he murders a member of his own gang who was about to murder the gang's robbery victim.
As he tries to care for the infant, Tsotsi becomes more and more humanized. He is forced to confront himself and the memories of the past he has been trying to forget. The infant awakens fathering instincts in him and the desire for a home and family. He even takes in his old friend Boston and tries to help him. The story can be seen, like “Catch a Fire” as another look at the reconciliation that took place in South Africa after the fall of the Apartheid system. The film makes the argument that no matter what crimes a person has committed, there is still hope of redemption.
This powerful story, reminiscent of Dostoyevsky's “Crime and Punishment,” is told with a minimum of dialogue. The haunting images of the shanty towns of Soweto and Johannesburg are unforgettable. The performances by the largely no-name cast are impressive, as is the direction by newcomer writer-director Gavin Hood. The DVD of “Tsotsi” also includes a short film, “The Shopkeeper,” by Hood which is also impressive. This is one of the best films of either 2005 or 2006. It rates an A.
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