Monday, November 19, 2012


Director: Gavin Hood  
Starring: Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto

 It’s always interesting for me to see a film from a country I know little about, or even one which produces few international films in general. The South African film industry is hardly on par with Hollywood, but they have a solid entry into international cinema with Tsotsi. Although I didn’t feel that it brought anything tremendously novel to the screen, it tells its little story of moral redemption well.

Tsotsi (Chweneyagae), a young hoodlum in Johannesburg, steals a car, not knowing that there is a small baby in the backseat. When he discovers the child, he cannot bring himself to abandon it, and instead, starts to care for it, forcibly enlisting the help of a single mother (Pheto). In doing so, he begins to question his current life of crime and how he wound up there, all while wrestling with whether or not to return the child to its affluent parents.

The narrative focus of this film is squarely on Tsotsi attempting to turn his life around. Chweneyagae turns in a fine performance in this aspect, but I felt his “pre-epiphany” Tsotsi much more a caricature. He is hardened and violent, but somehow, I felt a massive disconnect between this Tsotsi and the one he turned into. The name “Tsotsi” even means “Thug.” I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I know that the Tsotsi we meet at the beginning of the film felt oddly unreal. To give credit where credit is due, I will end by reiterating what a nice job Chweneyagae does with the metamorphosis of the character, especially considering that this is likely one of his first films, but it seems like he didn’t quite know where to start.

The music in the film is quite good. The soundtrack is by contemporary South African pop/hip-hop artists, one of whom had a small role in the film as a fellow gangster (Zola, playing gangster Fela), and it was refreshing for me to hear this aspect of South African culture. I like that it didn’t sound like the opening strains of “Circle of Life,” but rather sounded like something you’d hear if you turned on the radio. It helped make the Johannesburg in Tsotsi seem a little bit more real.

As weird as this may sound, I actually found the Johannesburg depicted in Tsotsi to feel a little sanitized. This sounds weird because most people, “average” film-goers that is, who see this, would probably be “shocked” or “horrified” at the slum conditions in which both Tsotsi and the single mother live. Quite frankly, the “squalor” in which Tsotsi lives has nothing on any Italian neo-realist film. The single mother’s small house is even charming in a shabby chic sort of way. I’ve seen films so depressing, you need to either take a nap or a Prozac when they finish, anything to keep you from reaching for the razors. Tsotsi *thinks* that it’s portraying a horrible, depressing gutter-world, but it feels largely symbolic and not real enough. It’s certainly not a depressing film. I feel as if the director was holding back in showing the true conditions of life in the shantytowns in Johannesburg. I think it would have been an even stronger film if he hadn’t. Tsotsi is emotionally moving, yes, but I didn’t feel like I was getting a glimpse of the “real” Johannesburg; not enough, anyway. In this regard, I felt too much like the film came out of the pages of a novel and not out of real life.

2005 (and then blending into 2006) was a big year for me, film-wise. I threw myself into the 2005 Oscar nominations with an abandon I have yet to match. I saw as many nominated films as I possibly could in all categories; by the time of the awards ceremony, I believe I had managed to see about 85% of all nominated films. However, I never got around to seeing Tsotsi – foreign language films are always a little harder to find – but I did see another foreign language film nominee, Paradise Now. Paradise Now is a staggeringly brilliant film (separate review forthcoming). When it lost to Tsotsi, I almost threw something at the television.

To be fair to Tsotsi, when I watched it for the first time today, I had in my head a voice that kept saying, “OK, so you are, apparently, better than Paradise Now. Prove it.” Which, of course, it couldn’t. However, I do understand why this won and Paradise Now didn’t; Tsotsi plays to so many of the Oscar-baiting requirements that the Academy couldn’t help itself. Plus if the Academy voted for Paradise Now, they feared politicizing themselves, despite the fact that Paradise Now manages to take a phenomenally apolitical look at the conflict between Palestine and Israel. It’s yet another in the long line of the right film losing for the wrong reasons.

Did I like Tsotsi? Yes, it’s definitely a solid film. But it didn’t bowl me over. It’s got a strong emotional story at its core, stronger than I expected, but everything is pretty cut and dry.

Arbitrary Rating: 7.5/10


  1. I was never happy with the ending of Tsotsi, it felt as though they just wanted to end the film, but weren't sure how, so did it clumsily. And the members of his gang were quite broadly drawn stereotypes. It may be because I've seen it 3 times now, but I just don't like it anymore. The first time I liked it, but since then I can take it or leave it.

    1. Yeah, I get that with the ending. Definitely agree re: other gang members. I watched it once, I feel no compunction to see it again. I mean, it's certainly not a BAD film, but other than the novelty of it coming from South Africa, what else does it have going for it that is compelling and original?

    2. @JayCluitt - if you get a chance to see the DVD of this film, it has two other alternate endings to the film. I did like the theatrical version the best of the three endings, but you may be interested in seeing one of the others.

    3. I've got the DVD still, so I'll try and check that out at some point, thanks for the tip.

  2. Good review. I liked this film, although I didn't love it. I agree on the good performance turned in by the lead actor.