Tsotsi, the South African film that this year won the Oscar for best foreign film, opens on such grim and lurid terms that foreknowledge of the production’s more salutary elements may be crucial to any sustained audience sympathy.
But the reverse might also be true. After all, this story about a criminal whose life is changed by an infant (an inadvertently kidnapped one, at that) raises the prospect of a very dubious sort of sentimental fiction.
In his adaptation of Athol Fugard’s novel, writer-director Gavin Hood perhaps gives a little too much credence to crime-movie brutality in the early portions of the tale—and to psychologically simplistic flashbacks in the middle section. After the fact, however, you may be able to rationalize some of that as part of the set-up for the film’s most memorable moment: its tense, ironic, surprisingly complex final sequence.
The title character (eerily played by young Presley Chweneyagae) is a “tsotsi” (thug), thief and killer who seems abysmally callous even during his first crudely clumsy attempts to comfort and protect the tiny child. And the most credible aspect of his gradual moral and emotional awakening comes less from the baby than from assorted maternal figures, including especially a kind of urban earth goddess (Terry Pheto, in the film’s warmest and most luminous performance).