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Timeless ‘Tsotsi’ will break your heart

South African story is the front-runner to win the Oscar for best foreign film
/ Source: The Associated Press

Far from the ghetto streets of Soweto, the South African drama “Tsotsi” resonates with a raw freshness and immediacy and an almost mythic sense of reclamation and redemption.

A foreign-language nominee for the upcoming Academy Awards, “Tsotsi” brings Athol Fugard’s novel about the mean streets of 1950s South Africa into modern times, updating the story to offer an insightful glimpse of post-apartheid life, from its most violently severe to its most culturally vibrant.

Director Gavin Hood, who also wrote the screenplay, packs a poetic spiritual journey into an intense hour and a half, tracing a teen’s transformation from almost mindlessly robotic thug to incipient manchild experiencing his first stirrings of compassion and decency.

Propelled by the beat-crazy “Kwaito” music of co-star and South African pop singer Zola, “Tsotsi” presents a sterling film debut by Presley Chweneyagae in the title role as a young gang leader whose anger and animal ferocity seemingly doom him to early death.

In “Tsotsi-Taal,” the street language of Soweto used in the film, “Tsotsi” is a generic term for thug or gangster. Chweneyagae’s Tsotsi embodies that identity, a 19-year-old orphan who raised himself and learned in the process that evoking fear in others was his surest means to survive and thrive.

Tsotsi leads a strange gang of bad boys: Ex-teacher Boston (Mothusi Magano), vicious killer Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe) and lame-brained but loyal bruiser Aap (Kenneth Nkosi).

At a bar one drunken night, Boston pushes inscrutable Tsotsi to share some personal shred of his dark and hidden past. Tsotsi seems to have repressed all childhood memories and sprung full-blown as an alpha-wolf of the streets, yet Boston’s taunting pleas spark buried feelings of anxiety and dread in the gang leader.

Tsotsi responds the only way he knows how, with rage. He viciously beats Boston, then sensing the repugnance of the other bar patrons and even the members of his gang, Tsotsi flees.

Whatever raw nerve the incident has touched in Tsotsi, the random events that follow set him on a course of either damnation or deliverance.

Tsotsi finds himself on the lam from police after a carjacking goes awry, resulting in violence and leaving him in possession of a 3-month-old baby that he finds himself incapable of abandoning.

All of this action is packed into the movie’s opening moments, the remainder of the film slowly revealing the humanity Tsotsi has hidden from the world and even from himself.

Central to his metamorphosis is Miriam (Terry Pheto), a young widow with an infant of her own, who becomes surrogate mother to both Tsotsi and the baby in his keeping.

Hood draws stellar performances from the entire cast, but newcomer Chweneyagae makes the movie, proving an absolute natural with a fierce presence and old-soul melancholy that belie his youthful face.

The songs of Zola, who has a brief role as an animated associate of Tsotsi’s gang, provide an infectious backdrop that both contrasts the film’s deliberate pace and complements Soweto’s gritty, vigorous street life. “Kwaito” music is an amalgam of dance, rap and pop styles whose heavy beat reflects an air of pride and defiance among South African townships after apartheid.

Fugard has noted that while the film moves his story ahead half a century, it captures the spirit of the novel.

Imbuing “Tsotsi” with a lyrical savagery reminiscent of the Brazilian boys-with-guns drama “City of God,” Hood has crafted a film rooted in South Africa’s here and now yet still timeless in its examination of the healing power of human connection.