|Written by Allan Peach|
|Tuesday, 18 July 2006|
Based on the only novel by famed Afrikaner dramatist Athol Fugard, “Tsotsi” (slang for thug, or flashy hoodlum) is a film about self-discovery and redemption in the shantytowns of South Africa. Spanning six days in the life of a young street tough, known to his gang only as Tsotsi, the plot is simple. Tsotsi steals a rich woman’s car, only to discover a three-month old baby in the backseat. Rather than returning the child or disposing of it, Tsotsi decides to keep the baby. At first, Tsotsi ineptly attempts to mind the infant himself, but soon coerces Miriam, a local nursing widow, to help him care for the child. This turn of events sparks a journey of self-evaluation that finally leads Tsotsi to discover his own humanity.
At 94 minutes, the film is very tightly directed. It is easy to forget that the film is shot in Tsotsi-Taal (the Afrikaner mobster slang of the streets), as the dialogue is so sparse. Shots are blocked predominately in extreme long shots, highlighting the oppressiveness of the shanties. Sometimes tight close-ups are used, as if burrowing into the souls of the characters. Emotions are expressed subtly through the eyes rather than through broad gestures. Characters look almost directly into the camera in most shots. The effect brings an intimacy that can only be achieved in cinema.
The inability of the characters to physically show their feelings, in any but the repressed ways, speaks to the emotionally stifling atmosphere of the shanties. When Miriam convinces Tsotsi to “do the right thing,” the actors are so restrained that it seems as if the screen will explode if they don’t at least touch. They do not, and their repressed feelings infuse the moment with a flood of emotions from simple hope to an unsettling fear of what is to come.
It is Gavin Hood’s stark, controlled direction that often what makes “Tsotsi” a powerful film. However, if Hood’s meticulous austerity is at the heart of the film’s successes, it also responsible for the film’s fatal flaw. The audience is shown the reasons behind Tsotsi’s bond with the child and the results of that bond, but we never see the joy of that bond in Tsotsi’s stoic face.
A man being changed by a child is not a new subject in literature or film. Wordsworth could have been reviewing “Tsotsi” when he wrote:
"A child, more than all other gifts
That earth can offer to declining man,
Brings hope with it, and forward-looking thoughts."
From the novel Silas Mariner to Chaplin’s film, “The Kid”, the responsibility for a child, thrust upon a misanthropic man, leads to a loving bond and spiritual growth. Hood shows us, in flashbacks, the psychoanalytic reasons Tsotsi makes the child his own. However, the director never shows us the metamorphosis of the child from a symbol in Tsotsi’s mind to a transforming love in his heart. It is almost as if Hood is so afraid of falling into bathos that he is unwilling to even approach the edge of pathos. It can be argued that a real Tsotsi would not show love or pleasure openly, even though he derived these emotions internally. Still, more mature directors like Chaplin or Kurosawa have found ways to cinematically express the inner emotions of even the most stoic character. Compare Kurosawa’s ability in “Dodes’ka-den” to describe another shantytown’s populace with great emotionality but never maudlin sentimentality.
Tsotsi continually calls the child “it”, despite naming the child after himself. He never really smiles at the child and the baby seems more of a nuisance to him than a blessing. The closest hint of an emotional bond occurs when Tsotsi takes the baby to see the concrete pipes that were once Tsotsi’s childhood home. But even here, the child seems more an object than a human being, and the act is more of catharsis than anything resembling love. Yet, we know that the bond is growing, and we also know that the director wants us to emotionally feel that bond.
It may be that more scenes of Tsotsi and the child bonding were not possible. Babies (twins were used in the shooting) are difficult to control. This is hinted at in the DVD’s extras. In contrast, Tsotsi’s relationships with gang members, a legless man at the station, and his key relationship with Miriam work flawlessly within Hood’s emotionally restrained style. Hood takes the time needed to subtly build these relationships. Unfortunately, the script works only if we can believe that a child can turn a boy, who is a thief and killer, into a man with a developing sense of morality.
Despite this glaring weakness, “Tsotsi” is film worth seeing, and in many ways admiring. Although several of the actors have a strong dramatic resume, many others were newcomers to acting. Terry Pheto, as Miriam, is a real standout among those that had never acted previously. Hood’s ability to extract a truly exquisite performance from her is reminiscent of Robert Bresson’s best work with amateurs.
The sound track contains songs by Kwaito artist, Zola, who also appears briefly in the film. Kwaito music is a form of African Hip-Hop. Its hypnotic, happy sound plays in stark contrast to Hood’s visions of the Soweto shanties. In addition to the Kwaito sounds, the track also contains some hauntingly melancholy music by poet and folksinger, Vusi Mahlasela. The soundtrack is a true test for a home theater system, with solid pounding bass and lilting folk vocals.
The extras on the DVD are all interesting. Alternate endings and deleted scenes show how much thought went into the final content of the movie. The disc also contains an early short by Hood, “The Storekeeper”. Like “Tsotsi”, the film is extremely well crafted and additionally, has no dialogue. Also, like “Tsotsi” the film’s fatal flaw involves a child. There is a long suspense scene in which a toddler is in danger of being shot. In the end, the child is shot and dies. Hitchcock made a similar faux pas in a suspense scene in “Sabotage,” when a bomb kills a child. Hitchcock felt that it was a grievous error to create concern in an audience for a child, and then kill him. Despite the dramatic problems with “Tsotsi” and “The Storekeeper,” they both show that Gavin Hood is a talented young director to watch.
Gavin Hood’s “Tsotsi” won the Best Foreign Language film at the 78th Academy Awards in 2006.