The first film from South Africa to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Tsotsi is a would-be tale about a would-be street thug who undergoes a would-be redemptive transformation. Not that this film doesn’t work; quite the opposite, but the film clocks in at a hair over an hour and a half, and while the story is that much more thrifty because of it, the journey that the titular character undertakes seems compressed, as if certain milestones along the path toward redemption have been rushingly summarized or been Cliff’s Notes-ed. Granted, I still liked the film a good deal for what it was, but for once, I actually kinda wished the film had been a little bit longer.
Tsotsi, which appropriately means “thug”, is a low-level hoodlum living in the slums of I believe Johannesburg, scraping by with small-time robberies and muggings which he oversees with his three gangmates. It is during an impromptu solo job that Tsotsi ends up shooting a young woman and stealing her car, only to find out some ways down the road that the woman’s baby is still in the back seat. Taking the baby in, along with the help of a widowed mother living near his shack, his caring for the child re-opens the wounds of his own childhood, and he ends up on the path to self-redemption. Director Gavin Hood seems to be a fan of Wes Anderson framing; square compositions, the focal point being in the dead center of the frame, all that jazz, but without the off-beat quirkiness of Anderson. It was actually quite good, and it made the watch that much more enjoyable and interesting, rather than the slightly disturbing aura of Anderson’s films. The music was also especially enjoyable, though it might’ve been a shade more melodramatic than the film really called for, but it generally worked. The story is helped along by a very engaging and dynamic performance from Presley Chweneyagae as Tsotsi. The wannabe gangster is little more than a thug at the beginning of the film, but thanks to the film’s poignant flashback sequences and Chweneyagae imbuing a conscience into the character, Tsotsi comes out a different person on the other end, and it’s a believable evolution, if albeit a slightly hurried one due to the short running time.
With the first decade of the new millennium being far too short as it is in the Book, even with the new edition filling it out a little bit more than it was, the year of 2005 is still now only represented by two films; literally, I could tear a single page out of the new edition and it would be missing that whole year. I know hindsight always seems to be 20/20, and the decade of 2000-2009 is still too fresh to really be able to judge the lasting power of some of its films, but frankly, it’s a little unfair to write off a majority of the films of this decade just to keep some of the earlier decades like the 1970s as bloated as they are. Films like Tsotsi, while being one of the two films from 2005 still in the Book, are a stalwart example of the ability of films from this still young era to be meaningful, important, and even contemporary classics. This is a much more modern “classic” than the word would normally imply, but it is still a great film nonetheless. My ranting about the Book aside, go see Tsotsi if you haven’t already; it’s only an hour and a half, and I’m sure you won’t feel like the time was wasted.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10