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Maybe not the best foreign-language film of 2005, but an impressive one

Mar 26, 2006 (Updated Mar 26, 2006)
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  • User Rating: Excellent

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Pros:ensemble cast, music, pacing

Cons:I had difficulty swallowing the basic premise of the drama

The Bottom Line: An outstanding movie from post-apartheid South Africa with impressive ensemble acting

Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences frequently gets things wrong, including more than a few bad movies as "best picture"* or as "best foreign-language picture." Before this year's exceptionally boring broadcast, the consensus of prognosticators was that Brokeback Mountain was the best picture of 2005 and would receive yet another award as that and that "Tsotsi," a South African movie that had only had the minimal release necessary to qualify for Oscar consideration would be named best foreign-language picture at least in part because many Academy members would never vote for a Palestinian movie (Paradise Now).

As everyone knows, the Oscar was one award "Brokeback Mountain" did not receive. "Crash" joined such other surprise winners as "The Greatest Show on Earth" and "An American in Paris," but the forecasters were right about "Tsotsi." Having thought that "Paradise Now" was a brave and very good movie (considerably braver and better than "Crash" IMO), and knowing the politics of opposition to "Paradise Now," I was skeptical of "Tsotsi," thinking that it might be another "Nowhere in Africa" (not just in African location, but in international politics trumping artistic merit to route the award).

The acceptance speech at the Oscars by writer/director Gavin Hood (and that he had brought the film's young star, Presley Chweneyagae, whose first movie appearance it was) along decreased my skepticism, which was further reduced when I learned that the movie was an adaptation of a 1980 novel by the great South African playwright Athol Fugard (best known for Master Harold and the Boys; I hadn't known he had written a novel).

I had some of the same difficulty with "Tsotsi" as I did with "Crash": I mean suspending disbelief. In "Crash" it was the piling up of coincidence on coincidence (and that anyone could be as totally unsympathetic as Sandra Bullock's character...). "Tsotsi" does not depend on coincidences that strain plausibility. What I find difficult to believe in "Tsotsi" is the sudden transformation of the young thug (this is what "tsotsi" means in the argot of Soweto, an argot that mixes Afrikaans, English, Xhosa, and Zulu).

I know that having a baby transforms many people, even many men. But finding one seems to me to instantly and radically change men only in movies ("The Three Godfathers" in its multiple incarnations springs to mind).

The title character, whose given name is unknown to the rest of the gang he leads, shoots a woman and steals her car. Down the road, he finds a baby in the backseat. Leaving in the car would have been more sensible than taking him along... or handing the baby over to someone or another, but Tsotsi decides the baby belongs to him and it is his new mission to ensure the baby's welfare. Having someone return the baby would best accomplish this. Tsotsi is not very good at changing diapers, though he does get a milk-filled breast for the baby (commanding it at gunpoint). And his hours as a thug are irregular with the constant possibility of his not being able to return to the infant.

Admittedly, my rationality is not Tsotsi's rationality, and the movie supplies a sort of explanation for the seeming sadist not wanting to abandon "his" baby (though, Tsotsi's being ordered by his father to stay away from his mother who was seemingly dying of AIDS again would lead me to the conclusion that the baby should be reunited with his mother....). That Tsotsi sees his younger self in the baby is very clear, and the identification is not in the realm of rational calculation.

My disbelief was never entirely suspended, but I went with the flow (tumult) and was particularly fascinated by the interactions between Tsotsi and the infant's father (I could not begin to explain how these occur or what happens without major plot spoilers, and I know this is not a movie that has been seen by very many people).

There is some very graphic violence in the movie. Tsotsi clearly "earns" his name in the early goings. It is often said that great screen acting is mostly in the eyes, and Chweneyagae has a very convincing look of viciousness (that is first clouded and then dissipated over the course of the movie). "Psychopath" doesn't seem adequate to describe him... or "Butcher" (Zenzo Ngqobe). Tsotsi has no compunctions about killing anyone who gets in the way of the gang's robberies, but "Butcher" seems to be involved for the chance to kill.

The gang of young armed robbers also includes Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), a roly-poly follower who goes along with whatever Tsotsi suggests, and Boston (Mothusi Magano) who does not. When Boston objects to the needless murder of a man on the Johannesburg subway, Tsotsi attacks Boston with more brutality than in killing others.

"Crash" has received a lot of praise for its ensemble cast—probably deservedly (it's the screenplay, which most everyone predicted would receive an Oscar, that I think is responsible for the many false notes of the white characters and the sentimentalization of the carjackers). The ensemble cast of "Tsotsi" is not just less known, but previously unknown.+ As the nursing mother, Terry Pheto is superb. For her, too, it is less what she says than the looks (appraising, pitying, frightened, fearless, and more) in her eyes. Perhaps it helps that she is the most sensible person on view. And Rapulana Seiphemo is impressive as the infant's father, who has been very successful in the post-apartheid South Africa, but who puts aside his humiliation when the chips are down. (He, too, does a lot with his eyes...)

The movie is quite dark—in lighting and in other ways. I can testify that it is very difficult to discern seats coming in during the opening credits, for one thing. The editing is much more thriller-like than "The Constant Gardener," another 2005 movie set in postcolonial Africa.

I am not convinced that "Tsotsi" is a better movie than "Paradise Now." Both movies show young men stepping back from violence and have very convincing performances and were filmed on location in dangerous locations ("The Constant Gardener" fits in this last category, too). The award to "Tsotsi" may not have been the right one, but it has increased the visibility of a very good, low-budget African movie, and in later years, when "Crash" is widely seen as another embarrassment in the checkered history of Academy Awards, the choice of best foreign-language film of 2005 will not add ignominy to the list of Oscar mistakes.

Apparently, Fugard's (1980) novel was set in the 1950s. The updating in the movie seems to me to work just fine. Great inequalities persist in South Africa, even if they are no longer based on racial laws. Soweto festers... as do parts of Los Angeles and other US cities. The movie is less "about" South Africa than about the possibility of change and halting steps toward expiation, but the context is the South African townships and the contrast to yuppie Johannesburg.


* Indeed, I compiled a list of worst movie by decade awarded a "best picture" Oscar.

+Everyone in it was previously unknown to me, along with the work of writer-director Hood. Zola, who plays a receiver of stolen merchandise and wants the gang working for him (and plays dice in several scenes with gang members) also wrote and performed the songs in the movie. IMDB does not list him as having appeared in any other movies, but provides the information that "zola" also means "thug," but is also what the impoverished district where he grew up is called.

2006, Stephen O. Murray

Recommend this product? Yes

Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age

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