He is a young predator, a feral youth with a cold, blank stare prowling the Johannesburg area streets with his pack. In his own Soweto township neighborhood the titular protagonist of writer-director Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi is all gangster attitude, flipping off the idle taunts of older men with studied indifference. But this is merely the defensive posture of a little fish in a big pond. Downtown with his posse, he isn’t out to bully or intimidate to make himself feel bigger, but carefully stalks his prey with chilling purposefulness, methodically watching for a moment of opportunity.
Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) is neither the worst of his posse nor the best, possessing neither the sadistic brutality of Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe) nor the uneasy residual humanity of Boston (Mothusi Magano). Still, he is the gang’s natural leader, and his apparent willingness to tolerate Butcher’s excesses and ignore Boston’s misgivings implicates himself, and by extension those who follow him, in the former’s acts.
Tsotsi seems almost entirely severed from human values, and his seemingly total moral apathy rattles the conscience-stricken Boston. “Decency, Tsosti,” Boston harangues. “Do you know the word?” Boston tries everything he can think of to provoke a human reaction in Tsotsi: Doesn’t he have a real name? (“Tsotsi” is merely slang for “thug” or “gangster” in the local patois, itself called tsotsitaal or “gangster talk.”) Didn’t he have parents? (Public-awareness billboards about the ravages of HIV-AIDS in Africa are the film’s first hint about Tsotsi’s rootlessness.)
At first Tsotsi seems as indifferent to Boston’s rant as to Butcher’s brutality, his face a mask of apathy. When Boston finally does provoke a reaction, the result is more alarming than encouraging. Still, it’s an indication that there is still at least a spark of humanity in the little gangster; and a spark, under the right circumstances, can become a fire.
But how? Last year’s The Beat that My Heart Skipped was about a strongarm thug who struggled with possible redemption through a long-neglected affinity for the piano. Such a highbrow road to redemption, needless to say, is utterly beyond poor Tsotsi, whose brief, harsh existence has hardly included anything so bourgeois as piano lessons.
Tsotsi’s appalling ignorance is, indeed, part of what is so unsettling about him, and thugs like him. Tsotsi may not be as great a villain as Don Corleone, but at least Corleone is smart enough to see reason, and has been socialized in a code of honor that governs his behavior. Tsotsi has had little or no socialization in anything but lawlessness; his world is defined largely in the most basic and primal categories: needs, wants, opportunities, obstacles, hazards.
Yet there are primal impulses that are other-centered rather than self-centered — responses that are not dependent on socialization, but are part of our social and domestic nature, and cannot be wholly suppressed by deplorable social conditions. Tsotsi may have little or no concept of pity or compassion, but deep in the mammalian brain is a trigger that will not allow him or any of us to be indifferent to the sound of a baby crying.
What we do about it is another story. Babies have been abandoned or even smothered by troubled mothers desperate to escape the child’s cries. Given what we’ve seen of Tsotsi in the first act, there is a terrible moment when Tsotsi discovers the infant that his actions have inadvertently separated from its mother (how this comes about I won’t say, though I may be the only critic who doesn’t). One can easily imagine Tsotsi doing something dreadful at this point — and in a way he does, though not quite in the way we fear.
The theme of the jaded or tough figure humanized by contact with an innocent is a familiar one, and mawkishness and bathos loom at every turn. Yet Hood navigates the film through this mine field with sure instincts and consummate skill. He doesn’t tell, but shows; his characters never become too lucid or articulate, avoiding the danger of didacticism or moralizing.
Tsotsi’s very ignorance and callousness are a buffer against sentimentality; his efforts to care for the baby are nearly as disturbing as his crimes, and his trial-and-error discoveries about responsibility and consequences include moments that are nearly unwatchable in their pathos. Hood plots a credible learning curve for Tsotsi, walking a razor’s edge between hope and tragedy.
The infant is not the only catalyst for change in Tsotsi’s life. The young hoodlum also has fateful encounters with a blustering, homeless cripple in a wheelchair who crosses Tsotsi and a young widow with a nursing baby whose help Tsotsi needs. There are also his complicated relationships with slow but loyal Aap and hard-drinking but not amoral Boston.
A story like this can break in a number of possible directions, ending variously in despairing nihilism, grim sowing-and-reaping retribution, or compassion and hope. Tsotsi’s story, based on South African playwright Athol Fugard’s only novel, is brutal enough to threaten the first, and humane enough to hold out hope of the third — but it’s perhaps the second that seems most realistic.
Hope, after all, is not a commodity in abundant supply in Tsotsi’s world, in which AIDS runs rampant and one generation of homeless orphans succeeds another in the discarded concrete piping where Tsotsi slept as a child. Even so, this is the story of one young thug, not every thug, and anything may happen.
Clearly Tsotsi feels some kind of impulse to do the right thing — yet very often for those who go too far down the wrong road it can be difficult or even impossible to turn around again. Will that be the case here? Tsotsi walks the line right up to the final scene, culminating in a final shot of transcendent rightness, an ending that one may dare to hope might also be some sort of beginning.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.