Tsotsi (15)

A night on the township
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The Independent Culture

This category of the Oscars tends to favour uplifting human interest stories, and Tsotsi undeniably ticks certain boxes that generally win Academy voters' approval: notably, those marked "redemption" and "universality". Universal Tsotsi certainly is: it belongs to a familiar tradition of films about damaged disadvantaged youth, taking its place alongside the Brazilian City of God and Pixote, Buñuel's Mexican drama Los Olvidados, early-1990s African-American dramas such as Boyz n the Hood or Juice, or even recent UK contender Bullet Boy.

But even if Tsotsi isn't wholly distinctive, it's accomplished and gripping - and despite the above similarities, is very specific to its setting. Its anti-hero (non-professional newcomer Presley Chweneyagae) is a 19-year-old criminal in a shanty town near Johannesburg; his name means "hood" or "thug", causing one of his sidekicks to object, "Tsotsi? That's not a real name." In fact, Tsotsi does have a more prosaic name; why he prefers not to use it, and how he comes to reclaim it, is part of the story.

From the start, Tsotsi is unmistakably a hard case. At a busy station, he scans the crowd with an icily efficient gaze, seeking out a likely victim. He chooses a dapper elderly black man, and in a nightmarishly terse sequence - the film is good at evoking peril in cold, spare blasts - Tsotsi and his three accomplices surround the man, rob him and stab him.

Tsotsi hardly seems a likely candidate for redemption, especially when we see him administer a brutal beating to sidekick Boston (Mothusi Magano), who's reckless enough to challenge him on the topic of "decency". But then, after shooting a woman and stealing her car, Tsotsi finds himself with a baby on his hands (or rather, in a paper carrier bag).

This is where you have to decide whether or not you're going to place your faith in Tsotsi as a narrative. It's not that much of a problem, surely, to credit that even a merciless desperado would balk at harming or abandoning a baby; it's even plausible that he should try ineptly to tend to it. The problem is simply that Hood's script too transparently primes Tsotsi for a moment of truth. Distraught after beating Boston, Tsotsi runs off across a wasteland in pouring rain - and the film flashes back to him as a young boy, dashing in terror across the same plain, years earlier.

When Tsotsi coerces young mother Miriam (Terry Pheto), a neighbour of his, into helping with the baby, we see his cold features begin to soften with need, tenderness and a sort of muted awe, and we get further flashbacks to his own mother - seen, in child's-height point-of-view, dying of Aids - and brutal father. The awkward crowning touch is that Tsotsi announces that he'd like to call the baby David - his own real name. Here the film becomes considerably less hard-nosed, and threatens to become just another Oscar-friendly drama about finding the inner child.

To Hood's credit, the film never uses the baby to try to melt our hearts, or Tsotsi's. There's nothing remotely charming or humorous about Tsotsi's attempt to care for the hapless bundle. Our initial anxiety about his tender mercies turns to horror, when he leaves the child sucking at a tin of condensed milk, then returns to find ants swarming all over him (Tsotsi would fit wonderfully with last week's Belgian drama The Child in a bad babycare double bill).

The film's biggest problem - I have no idea whether this is inherited from the Athol Fugard novel on which it's based - is that it's structured too neatly, with redemption coming for Tsotsi just when he needs it most. Its 91-minute running time is perhaps a little too spare: at the start, the film doesn't give us enough of the hard, unforgiving petty hood to allow this part of his character to breathe, making his later thawing seem abrupt and contrived. It's a shame, because in the opening sequences, Chweneyagae's baleful detachment makes Tsotsi's angry emotional repression genuinely troubling.

But rather than see it as realism that fails because of overstatement, Tsotsi makes most sense if you take it as melodrama in a vividly realistic setting. Its atmospherics are laid on with almost Gothic intensity; Lance Gewer's widescreen photography establishing a toxic-looking shanty town setting, a sickly yellow-pink haze lacing the smoking chimneys and barbed wire. There's a nightmarish desolation in the tautly uncomfortable scene of Tsotsi's stalking of a beggar in a deserted underpass. And there's some effective editing: a shot of the young David huddled at night in a concrete pipe cuts to a whole stack of pipes, each with its own permanent child occupants.

The overall edge is rather blunted by a soundtrack that feels that bit too obviously packaged (lots of kwaito, a punchy contemporary township style with touches of hip-hop); and the score could have done without its touches of angelic gospel. Tsotsi is softer than it might have been, but even so, it's extremely watchable, as well as offering a rare cinematic insight into South African life after apartheid (there's only one white character, a minor player). And unlike, say, City of God with its favela gangster flash, Tsotsi couldn't be in any way accused of glamourising its setting. It's an effective, sincere film, made with - although you wish the script hadn't stressed the word quite so much - decency.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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