The eponymous protagonist of Gavin Hood’s “Tsotsi” is a teenage miscreant who lives in a sprawling Soweto shantytown outside of Johannesburg. Tsotsi is an amoral character who takes his small gang into the big city on criminal raids. Their activities are primarily larcenous, but Tsotsi is not perturbed if their victims wind up dying as a result of their actions.
Tsotsi is not his real name – it is gangster slang for “thug.” When one of Tsotsi’s gang presses him to reveal his birth name, Tsotsi replies by bloodying the inquirer’s face.
One night, Tsotsi goes too far: he steals a car from a wealthy woman by shooting her in the stomach. The car, however, has an infant in the backseat. Tsotsi wrecks the car and takes the infant back to his ramshackle home. But he is unable to properly care for the child. At one point, he is making diapers out of newspapers and giving the child condensed milk straight from a can. Desperate to ensure the baby is cared for, Tsotsi follows a young widow named Miriam back to her home and forces her at gunpoint to breastfeed the baby. At the same time, the police are searching for Tsotsi and his enemies have no problems tipping off the cops on his activities.
“Tsotsi” is at its best when the film focuses on the pathological and dangerous life of its title character. Hood, adapting his screenplay from an Athol Fugard novel, creates a raw, visceral drama where people (and, in one horrifying instance, a dog) are treated with unapologetic brutality. Presley Chweneyagae, who plays Tsotsi, brings a stunning air of vicious serenity to his role. Tsotsi’s seemingly stoic demeanor barely betrays his inner anger – all it takes is the glint of an eye or the stiffening of shoulders before chaos and wreckage are unleashed.
As the character of Tsotsi softens, however, so does the film. Flashbacks that are meant to reveal the circumstances that created Tsotsi seem forced and maudlin, and Tsotsi’s sudden infatuation with Miriam (a beautiful Terry Pheto) is curiously chaste and fraternal (and having Miriam try to explain art to Tsotsi is a little heavy-handed). Chweneyagae, who is wonderful as the tough guy, is somewhat less convincing when his sensitive side emerges.
But even with this lapse, “Tsotsi” emerges as being among the finest films ever to come out of Africa. It is a brilliant, jolting and altogether powerful blast of energy and emotion.