Sweet and Dour
Oscar’s Best Foreign Film 2006 Is and Isn’t the Usual American Art-House Fare
Without having seen the trailer for the upcoming Miramax release Tsotsi, a South African feature about a transformative week in the life of a young Soweto gangster, you can well imagine every note it strikes. “In a land without hope,” the deep, gentle voice of the guy who does the voice-overs for every foreign movie trailer would begin, “one young man beats the odds to learn important lessons about respect, hope, and family.”
Such is the marketing push Tsotsi is getting—announcing the movie as yet more heartwarming foreign fare (see Whale Rider) that, however well-made and good-natured, gives its culture an exotic pimping for the benefit of American audiences. You know the type: the senior-citizen-soothing sort of movie that has been the (white-)bread-and-butter of both the Rotunda and Charles for years upon years. One problem: Although not necessarily to its credit, Tsotsi doesn’t quite fit comfortably into that box.
Young Johannesburg thug Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) heads a small gang composed of heavyset, jovial childhood friend Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), ruthless killer Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), and disgraced student Boston (Mothusi Magano). In the wake of a violent subway robbery that Boston feels goes too far, tension mounts in the gang, and, striking out on his own, Tsotsi shoots a woman during a suburban carjacking. Speeding away from the scene of the crime, Tsotsi immediately discovers that the luxury vehicle he’s stolen comes with an unexpected extra—a crying baby in the backseat.
Tsotsi wordlessly decides, for reasons both pragmatic (turning in the baby to the proper authorities could get him busted) and personal (he’s struggling with some telegraphed, heavy-handed childhood issues of his own here, folks), to raise the child as his own in the ghetto. From this point forward, what we get resembles nothing so much as City of God meets Mr. Mom. Predictably, these contradictory elements —raw gangsterism and sappy domesticity—refuse to coalesce, creating a rhythm wherein one jarring, violent scene is followed quickly by one of saccharine sentimentality, or vice versa. For instance, when Tsotsi comically realizes he doesn’t know how to feed the child or change its diapers, he carries it to the home of his neighbor Miriam (Terry Pheto), herself the mother of an infant, and roughly demands at gunpoint that she breast-feed the kidnapped child.
Director Gavin Hood sprinkles his movie with some gritty moments worthy of groundbreaking movies about street kids. But Hood—whose résumé includes a few previous movies, an acting credit on an episode of the sci-fi TV series Stargate SG-1, and AIDS-prevention outreach, that last gig bluntly underscored by the HIV-awareness billboards featured prominently throughout Tsotsi—appears incapable of committing to a tone and running with it. It’s not only that he tries to mix grit with sentimentality, a hard balance to pull off to begin with; it’s that his maudlin scenes are so, well, awful. When Hood instructs his actors to pull at audiences’ heartstrings, as he does throughout the movie’s unforgivable final 15 minutes, the performances are uniformly overwrought and eminently unbelievable.
Too nihilistic at moments for the senior set, and far too soft for gangster/gangsta fans, Hood’s Tsotsi is unlikely to please any one audience member, although some may find its small successes worth overlooking its major faults. Where Tsotsi does succeed is in taking us to another corner of the world and showing both the all-too-familiar global problems they face—poverty, AIDS, violence, urban blight, etc.—and the almost-familiar cultural ways in which residents of that area proudly wear their problems on their sleeves. Tsotsi is recommended only for those who’d appreciate a heavily stylized look at Johannesburg slang, style, and street music of the moment. The God-awful Enya-meets-Graceland incidental score aside, some of the soundtrack’s hip-hop-derived songs by South African musical star Zola (who has a small role in the movie playing a character named, boldly enough, Fela) provide generally rousing moments. Otherwise, both the story told and its telling are too mediocre to merit even an unenthusiastic thumbs-up.