Tsotsi

Released:  2005

Cast:  Presley Chweneyagae, Mothusi Magano, Kenneth Nkosi, Zenzo, Jerry Mofokeng, Terry Pheto

Oscar Wins:  Best Foreign Language Film of the Year (South Africa)

SUMMARY:  In a shantytown outside Johannesburg, South Africa, lives a young man who calls himself Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae), which means “little gangster”.  Tsotsi has formed a gang with three friends:  Butcher (Zenzo), Aap (Kenneth Nkosi) and Boston (Mothusi Magano).  The four make money by robbing and stealing, but during a routine mugging on the subway, Butcher fatally stabs their victim.  This horrifies Boston, who openly questions if the others have any decency left.  The cold-blooded Tsotsi, the de facto leader, will not allow challenges to his authority, and savagely beats Boston.  Tsotsi then takes off on his own, and ends up in a well-off suburban area.  As he watches from across the street, a woman arrives home in her car, but the gate to her house won’t open.  When she gets out to talk to her husband over the gate intercom, Tsotsi approaches, shoots her, then takes her car.  Tsotsi never learned to drive, so the car is already weaving all over the road:  when Tsotsi hears a noise and looks in the back seat, he finds that there is a baby in the car with him, which causes him to crash the car.  Tsotsi is forced to leave the car behind, but puts the baby and any valuables from the car in a large paper shopping bag, then takes it back to his shack in the shantytown.  Unbeknownst to him, the child’s mother survived the gunshot, and is taken to a hospital, where she has already begun to work with police to identify her assailant.  The next morning, Tsotsi is instantly confronted by his crime when he wakes up, as the baby desperately needs a diaper change.  Without any diapers or other supplies, Tsotsi tries to make do with newspapers, only to have the rest of his gang show up just as he finishes changing the baby.  Instead of letting them in on his crime, Tsotsi makes an excuse to stay home that day.  After a few days, Tsotsi has realized that he is not equipped to deal with the baby, particularly when it comes to food.  From his shack one morning, he sees a woman with a baby of her own, and follows her back to her shack.  He holds the woman, Miriam (Terry Pheto) at gunpoint, and forces her to feed the baby.  When she is done, she cleans the baby up; Tsotsi then takes the baby and leave again.  In the meantime, Tsotsi’s absence and strange behavior have started to wear on Butcher and Aap, who have been spending time with another gangster named Fela.  Fela tries to get the two, and Boston, to leave Tsotsi and work for him instead.  Butcher is all for the move, but Aap is reluctant to leave his old friend Tsotsi.

When Tsotsi takes the baby back to Miriam for a second feeding, she asks Tsotsi to leave the baby with her, so that she can take care of it; after some persuading, Tsotsi agrees.  He then finds Boston, Butcher and Aap, and decides to care for Boston himself.  After they move him in, Boston explains that he had been studying to be a teacher, but had never taken the exam.  Surprisingly, Tsotsi is insistent that Boston take the exam; when Boston explains that there is a cost, Tsotsi, Butcher and Aap decide to do another “job”.  Tsotsi takes them to the house where the baby’s parents’ live.  The baby’s father, John, is home, and Aap holds him prisoner while Butcher and Tsotsi ransack the house.  While Butcher tries to find a safe, Tsotsi finds himself in the baby’s room, where he takes formula and stuffed animals.  However, things go wrong when John manages to set off the house alarm.  Butcher is set to kill John, but Tsotsi shoots Butcher first.  Leaving John frightened but unharmed, he and Aap take John’s car and make a getaway.  Though they get away safely, and are able to sell the car to Fela, Aap decides that he has had enough of Tsotsi, and leaves the gang.  Tsotsi then goes to Miriam’s house, where she tells him that she knows he kidnapped the baby (she had seen the story in the newspapaer).  Tsotsi tries to convince her that he can take care of the baby, but Miriam insists that he take it back – she even offers to do it for him.  Tsotsi refuses her offer, and takes the baby from her house.  The next day, Tsotsi decides to take the baby back on his own.  He takes the baby to the house’s gate, where over the intercom he tells John that he will just leave the baby outside.  Just then, the baby starts crying, and Tsotsi picks him up to try to soothe him.  At the same time, police arrive on the scene.  They hold Tsotsi, who is holding the baby, at gunpoint in the middle of the street.  John comes out of the house, as does his wife (in a wheelchair), and when he sees the tears and expression on Tsotsi’s face, he persuades the police to lower their weapons.  John then slowly walks to Tsotsi, who hands over the baby.  After John is safely out of the way, an officer orders Tsotsi to put up his hands, and he complies.

MY TAKE:  This is a really interesting premise:  a cold-blooded criminal shoots a woman and takes her car – only to find that there’s a baby inside.  Tsotsi is not hardened enough to get rid of the baby, and in fact, he decides to take it in himself.  This is the first interesting part, as it demonstrates that there is some humanity left in him.  Over the next few days, Tsotsi finds himself going against his natural patterns in order to care for the baby:  he ignores his friends, and (sort of) asks a stranger for help.  At the same time, that humanity begins to make itself shown more and more, as Tsotsi confronts his own past (he had run away from an abusive father and a dying mother as a young child).  He takes in and cares for Boston, whom he had severely injured; he even apologizes to him for what he did.  He tries to pay Miriam for caring for the baby, then asks (in a really heartbreaking moment) if he can still see her if he takes the baby back.  On the way to take the baby back, he gives money to a crippled beggar he had previously made fun of, and nearly attacked.  Most impressively, Tsotsi gives the baby back – and then gives himself up to the police.  Although it’s a story about a criminal, it’s heart-warming, because Tsotsi definitely changes for the better.  It’s both funny and impressive that this was caused by a helpless infant who can’t talk or walk.  Although you know that he’s done some really terrible things, at the end, it’s hard not to wish that Tsotsi could somehow be forgiven and let go by the police.  For obvious reasons, this can’t happen, but when you see that he really has changed, and has sacrificed his freedom for the sake of the baby, you can’t help but root for him.  I got the feeling that John, the baby’s father, actually understood this – that he could see that Tsotsi was trying desperately to do the right thing, despite his history.  There seemed to be a little bit of a father-son moment between them at the end there.  It’s an unexpectedly touching movie.

RATING:  Really good.

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