Monday, February 27, 2006

Tsotsi

      There’s a spine-tingling sequence in Tsotsi that evokes both the creature and the movie Frankenstein: The title character of the new film runs across an open field in the dark of night, lightning streaking the sky. Moments later, in silhouette, he lumbers down a suburban street while its inhabitants sleep: The man-made menace has come from the margins to wreak terror. What the film achieves from that point, however, is a sleight of hand both sublime and familiar.
      We first see Tsotsi (it means “thug”) as the conscience-free, violent leader of a street gang. After assaulting one of his underlings, he carjacks a young mother and inadvertently takes her baby, setting in motion an unraveling of personal history and memory that shows how this “monster” was created. His past glints in flashback scenes; it jolts long repressed emotions for Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) that, along with the predictably soul healing presence of the of the infant (whom he decides to keep), serve to slowly re-humanize him. Expediting that process is Miriam (Terry Pheto), a second young mother whom Tsotsi forces at gunpoint to breastfeed his new “son.” When her own tragedy is revealed, it sparks something akin to warmth in the hardened thug.
      The script is based on the novel by Athol Furgard but the tale has been transferred from apartheid-era South Africa to the ghetto-steez slums of the country’s present. Knowledge that the setting has been fast-forwarded by decades isn’t necessary, but awareness of it speaks a subtext of how the legacies of apartheid play out in modern South African life. The film moves quickly, packing a lot of information, but never feels rushed or overstuffed. Nor is the character’s transformation anything less than believable, thanks to Chweneyagae’s intuitive grasp of Tsotsi’s gnarled inner life. He’s wonderful in the role, even when traversing A Thug & a Baby clichés – using newspaper for diapers, dancing awkwardly to quiet the caterwauling infant, or feeding the child condensed milk straight from the can. The consequences of that last bit of ineptitude result in a scene involving a trail of ants that is guaranteed to make you squirm. Pheto has the thick, voluptuous beauty of chubby Janet or a thinner Jill Scott; her Miriam glows with both maternal warmth and sadness.
      Director Gavin Hood, who also adapted the screenplay, uses lighting magnificently, veering from dramatic starkness to a honeyed glow. Both approaches underline the harshness of the world captured while zeroing in on shards of beauty. But what makes the film so powerful is its delicate, steady weaving of sociological threads – how home & hearth violence blooms into large-scale chaos, how those damaged children cast to the margins to fend for themselves will eventually make their way back to the center. It’s not new information, but in the hands of Hood and his cast, it does stoke tears.

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