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cast: Presley Chweneyagae, Mothusi Magano, Israel Makoe, Percy Matsemela, and Jerry Mofokeng

director: Gavin Hood

94 minutes (15) 2005
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Momentum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Christopher Teague
There is a theme that runs through this film, and it's about 'decency' and how you've either got it, or lost it and could possibly regain it. But, to quote from Fela, the local gang-lord, "fuck your decency" - some people have just lost it totally.

Tsotsi is told through the eyes of a thug (the literal translation of the title) who, along with this gang - Boston, Butcher and Aap - have lived in an unknown ghetto in Johannesburg, and ply their trade of petty theft. It is when the gang's friendship frays, and Tsotsi in a fit of rage ends up shooting a woman from a wealthy neighbourhood and takes her car, unknowingly with a baby in the back, that this journey to decency begins.

At first, he decides to dump the car and leave the baby but something stirs his conscious - how could anyone leave this defenceless baby? - and Tsotsi takes the child home. Though Tsotsi's age is never given, one must assume he's approximately mid-late teens, and we learn of his own childhood abandonment - a drunken father, dying mother (again, we're not told of what, but we assume it's AIDS) - which leads to sleeping rough with the other street-kids in disused concrete sewer tubes on a piece of wasteland, next door to the slum ghetto. The hierarchy of this is subtly told - you start off in the concrete tubes, but 'earn' your way into the slum and your own corrugated iron shack, and communal stand-pipe; there's a throwaway line uttered at the end, where a woman describes where she lives, "on the left, just past the tap."

The sense of poverty and destitution is ever-present, but underplayed; Hood, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn't preach to the audience - a queue at the tap is taken as normal, with a community spirit that seems to be lacking in the more 'upmarket' area of the city. The choice of music throughout is intelligently made, with a choice between traditional African choral, with more modern rap music.

It is at the standpipe that Tsotsi notices a young woman with child, and at gunpoint he forces her to feed the baby, and it is during these tender moments - along with an attempt at robbing a crippled beggar - that Tsotsi's hardened resolve is chiselled away: if he doesn't do the right thing, the decent thing, then this child will end up like him.

The story and message is simple, but powerful, aided by a superb central performance from Presley Chweneyagae has Tsotsi, who flits from nasty thug to a nervous boy - when the woman feeds the baby, he shy-fully looks away; worldly-wise, yet emotionally dry. The other actors too help in this regard, especially Tsotsi's best friend Aap - played by Kenneth Nkosi - who follows the thug without exception or disagreement.

When you realise that this is the first film that many of these actors, including Chweneyagae have appeared in, then you have to applaud their ability; if there is a Hollywood equivalent to the feelgood factor that this brings, without any overt sentimentality, then I can only think of The Shawshank Redemption. Behind the camera, the photography from Lance Gewer is wonderful, and the pace courtesy of editor Megan Gill helps immensely Gavin Hood's film that won the Oscar for best foreign film, along with a host of other awards and nominations.

On the DVD: a pristine print with English subtitles, a trailer and nothing else.

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