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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 18.37%
Just Average: 26.53%
Pretty Crappy: 4.08%
Sucks: 0%

5 reviews, 19 user ratings

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by PaulBryant

"Powerful! Breathtaking! Contrived! Manipulative!"
3 stars

Having scooped up an Oscar for Best Foreign Film of 2005 just this past Sunday, Tsotsi is currently cruising at the peak of its wave of recognition. And, though I would very much like to grab a surfboard and ride along with the tide of critics who are in agreement that the film is an affecting, powerful, stirring piece of cinematic etcetera, I canít help but feel slightly reluctant to pile heaps of mashed potato praise on the film whilst I slather it with all sorts of rich gravy adjectives in the vain hope of whetting your cinephilic appetite. In other words, I think you should see Tsotsi, but I donít think you should love it.

Before it dissolves into trite sentimentality, Tsotsi is about a young thug ("thug" is what the word ďtsotsiĒ means in Soweto vernacular, and thus is a perfect nickname for our brutal main character) who makes a living as a brutal thief, stealing random bits of money from the swarming mass of South Africans that oscillate through Johannesburg's public transit system.

Indeed, a subway train is where the picture starts, in a sequence that makes Richard Widmarkís careful pick-pocketing during the opening of Sam Fullerís Pickup of South Street look positively angelic. Tsotsi and his brutal gaggle of followers surround a man they figure has some cash, then, amongst the distracted bustle of train riders, silently thrust a dagger into his ribs and hold his crumbling body upright until the rest of the passengers exit the car, at which point they drop his lifeless body, lift his money, and escape into the night.

After the gruesome murder, a member of Tsotsiís gang dissents, wondering aloud whether the gang leader has any sense of decency at all. Tsotsi reacts to this mutinous scallywag the way Alex reacts to rebellious droogs in Anthony Burgessís A Clockwork Orange: he beats the pulp out of him. Then he runs off into the Johannesburg squalor and comes across a beggar in a wheelchair who also questions his thug mentality, registering geriatric disdain for the teenagerís lack of respect. (However, this time an old cootís bitter ramblings are right on the money.) Could his swift life of depravity and an utter viciousness be all a mistake, Tsotsi suddenly wonders.

Of course, we know when Tsotsi is in the midst of contemplating his amorality because director/writer Gavin Hood has his slow and steady camera pre-programmed to push in towards a nice closeup of Presely Chweneyagaeís distressed countenance. Is there a flicker of hope behind those cold, staring eyes, we ask ourselves. How many nights of blood and fury will be strung together before Tsotsi becomes enlightened, or finds Jesus, or undergoes the Ludovico Treatment, or at least quits shoving knives in the bellies of old men? We ask ourselves these questions as we watch because we assume the same thoughts flow through Tsotsiís mind.

Well, apparently, Tsotsi will endure just the right number of depraved nights to make for a convenient, acutely plotted screenplay Ė and not one night more. The first quaint bells of redemption are rung when Tsotsi Ė after shooting a well-to-do woman in a suburban neighborhood Ė finds a baby in the backseat of the car heís freshly stolen. What to do now, Mr. Thug? Leave the child by the side of the road and speed off in the car? Leave the baby in the car to be discovered the next morning? No, no, better idea: take the baby, leave the car, and start your life anew with a new life.

You have to accept this srangely paternal decision if youíre going to bother trying to like Tsotsi, and for the most part I made the stretch and thought, Ya, okay, that might happen. Of course, what happens to Tsotsi and his infant companion afterwards is slightly too farfetched and corny for me (once a heartless monster-killer, Tsotsi now has to change diapers, sing lullabies), but the performance of Chweneygae is so powerful and convincing that I often scolded myself whenever I started to feel the story was becoming contrived or schmaltzy.

Either way, the story is briskly told, and superbly acted by all involved. Gavin Hood has the confidence and intelligence to imbue his adaptation of Athol Fugard's novel with long stretches of silence which permit the viewer to make his or her conclusions about the inner workings of Tsotsiís mind; conclusions that, in a lesser movie, would have been relegated to didactic speechifying. It is this impressive quantity of silence that allows the viewer to be sucked into Tsotsiís story and not feel preached to, even when the structure of the narrative itself abandons all reality in favor of some rather blunt allegory.

The ending left me mired in more mixed feelings, not only about what I should take away from Tsotsi, but about how the film presented its message. I respect Hoodís decision to keep his camera smooth and his compositions classical Ė instead of trying to communicate the grunge of Tsotsiís shantytown with handheld gyrations Ė but I wonder whether the story benefited from these decisions, and whether they ended up romanticizing the character of Tsotsi into something he wasnít. In any case, there were other, more interesting foreign films made during 2005 to be sure, but Tsotsi is still a picture worth seeing.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=12599&reviewer=364
originally posted: 03/11/06 18:50:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Portland Film Festival For more in the 2006 Portland Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/26/09 Abhishek Chakraborty Takes a little while to set up the characters, but then gets pretty interesting to watch. 5 stars
6/23/09 mr.mike Well worth your time. Hood's direction and the acting are fine. 4 stars
8/19/07 Steve Newman This film is totally believable apart forom the baby plot! SA looks a fu@@ed place! 3 stars
5/31/07 Anton A City of God wannabe, this is a disappointingly tedious and manipulative experience. 2 stars
11/16/06 Phil M. Aficionado Too many moments where one questions, would THIS happen?; but sincere and well-meaning 4 stars
5/06/06 David J not so much a good rendition of Athol Fugards brilliant play 5 stars
5/02/06 Robert I really wanted to love this movie. But it was completely overwrought and contrived. Shame. 2 stars
4/25/06 john bale Superb cast and beautfully crafted, a moving and passionate experience. 5 stars
3/27/06 Danny Johanson Very good, a bit odd at parts, otherwise great. 4 stars
3/13/06 koketso ndlovu i think is a brilliant 5 stars
3/06/06 Greg Ursic A stunning achievement. 5 stars
9/28/05 E. Northam Astonishing music; compelling, visceral, heart-wrenching story of a young thug's redemption 5 stars
8/24/05 Angry Hank Best African movie ever 5 stars
8/19/05 isabel excellent! thoroughly enjoyable but also interesting and challenging. 5 stars
8/19/05 Francis Gannon Surprisingly moving 5 stars
8/19/05 Jenny Walker Best South African film yet 5 stars
8/15/05 Tom Winchester Very moving 5 stars
8/04/05 Lance Gewer Brilliant! Absorbing! Must See! 5 stars
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  24-Feb-2006 (R)
  DVD: 18-Jul-2006



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