Gavin Hood / South Africa/UK / 2005
Baby kidnappings are two a plenty at the cinema from Raising Arizona through to Sympathy for Mr Vengeance even to A Cry in the Dark almost guaranteed to force some melodramatic emotion. Tsotsi, the South African township slang for thug, follows this tradition but shakes it all up with a burst of shanty town desperation and energy similar to City of God. It also might be the best South African film since Soldiers of the Rock.
A strong opening declares that this is a bold brash kind of filmmaking. Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) the protagonist and his gang of rude upstarts, Butcher, Boston and Aap head to the Johannesburg central train station to commit a robbery. The heist is an audacious blast of violent daring born of the recklessness of extreme poverty, robbing a man on a packed commuter train pressing him, hemming him in amongst the crush. One brutal fight later with Butcher about their actions, Tsotsi runs off and steals a car and unbeknownst to him, a baby also.
Following up this fearless gangster swagger giving the film wide appeal is the relationship that subsequently grows between thug and infant. In this brutal world acridly animated by director Gavin Hood, a genuinely touching bond occurs. Tsotsi clearly sees himself in the child and is trying to give himself a better life. Moments where he pumps up his stereo to jointly conceal the wailing and calm the baby (he dances and clowns also) are great. Later he leaves the baby under his bed in a posh cardy shopping bag with a can of milk and finds a trail of ants on it and on the baby - the word horrified provides starting blocks for where emotions run from with this image. The journey Tsotsi undergoes is amazing from brutal thug to caring human being who kills to protect life not to protect his interests. Whatís more is that it never seems contrived or overwrought. No mean feat especially considering the compulsive style of the opening.
Tsotsi suffers though with the potential redemption of Tsotsi himself. Hood gives Tsotsi a suitably rough upbringing, notably pointing out the specific concrete pipe that he used to sleep in as a pre-teen. Heís given the back story to justify his brutal behaviour and the beauty is in the transformation yet itís still hard to stick with him through the change from out and out villain to haunted perpetrator. Harder yet is the measured restraint of the family whose baby is stolen. To maintain an element of political correctness they are an affluent black couple who never quite become fully enraged with the situation, over charging the elements of Tsotsiís character sea change.
Due to this if anything Tsotsi recalls a raw interpretation of Crash especially with the standoff ending. The filmís cast are mainly black but the moments of tension, particularly the baby-gun standoff at the end seemed very similar to the Paul Haggis film, perhaps better due to the overwhelming poverty. People donít come here with the hope you imagine they carry with them when they go to Los Angeles. They are stuck here.