March 22-28, 2006

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Photograph by Blid Alsbirk and Miramax Films
Robber Redeemed: Presley Chweneyagae plays a Johannesburg petty thief who discovers a better way in 'Tsotsi.'

Baby on Board

The city of the future is a nightmare in South African Oscar winner 'Tsotsi'

By Richard von Busack

THERE IS a school of thought that insists that any social-problem film ought to be doused with a spoonful of honey. This year's Best Foreign Film Oscar winner, Tsotsi, tosses in about a cupful, when dealing with the bitter poverty in South Africa. The title means "Thug." Like Charlie Chaplin and the two brothers in Raising Arizona, an outsider is drawn back into the world by the experience of nurturing a helpless infant.

Based on a dated Athol Fugard novel, Tsotsi tells of a crew of robbers working the Johannesburg train line. Hard-faced Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) witnesses a botched stickup in which partner Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe) kills the victim. Later, the literate young barfly Boston (Mothusi Magano) starts mocking the robbers by asking them if they know the meaning of the word "decency." The scornful Tsotsi beats Boston up badly and then goes off on a solo job (a carjacking). He muffs that, too, shooting the driver. But as the young criminal escapes with the car, he realizes that there is an infant in the car seat in the back. Tsotsi is a wanted man. But his exposure to the baby, an embodiment of his inner child, softens him up. Further tenderizing comes when he meets a saintly widow, Miriam (Terry Pheto), whom he forces at gunpoint into being a wet nurse. She proudly reveals her nurturing breast in a self-consciously movieish display that rivals even Kelly McGillis' holy topless scene in Witness.

Sounds thick? That's because Tsotsi is. Chweneyagae excels in stalking his victims with a fixed, purposeful expression. Not every actor can look as if he means business in a crime scene, and Chweneyagae has that gift. The other attraction is the location footage of Johannesburg, which looks like the nightmare city of the future, full of bristling glass towers surrounded by no-go areas: smoggy acres of corrugated shacks and crooked alleys. This cityscape gives us a view of where we are—and where, I fear, we're heading—but director Gavin Hood doesn't expand much on the subject. Tsotsi is a kind of children's movie. This thug changes as soon as he sees the baby's face. To make sure that we recognize the change, Hood adds not one but two saintly mothers—one in a wheelchair, yet.

While Tsotsi's crew mate Aap (Kenneth Nkosi) serves as the official comic relief, I wish the camera had wandered off with him. He is meant to be a one-dimensional sensualist compared to our hero. Still, surely he has something going on; he has lived in this crime-ridden ghetto without becoming a nutter like Butcher or a hard-drinking moaner like Boston (Mothusi Magano). When Aap tears into a home-invasion victim's wine cellar, he's allowed to show the most enjoyment of life. The roly-poly Nkosi also has the most deft emotional scenes: one where he expresses his fear of Tsotsi, the second where he says his last goodbye to him. The film's Oscar-winning popularity is akin to the hubbub over Crash. It combines the otherness of criminals with the reassurance of their humanity and their desire to become peaceful citizens. In other words, Tsotsi is a combo of patronization and wishful thinking.

Movie Times Tsotsi (R; 94 min.), directed and written by Gavin Hood, photographed by Lance Gower and starring Presley Chweneyagae, plays at selected theaters around the Bay Area.

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