Gavin Hood's Tsotsi might surprise you. One of this year's favorites to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, the South African entry is anything but the masterpiece of inspired filmmaking you should expect it to be. It is a crowd-pleaser, sure, winner of the People's Choice Award at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, but other than being a fairly optimistic story of moral turnover that audiences can get behind, the film has very little to propel its worth to the same level as its esteemed appraisal.
Based on the 1980 novel by Athol Fugard, with many liberties taken to modernize what had been relevant literature
of Apartheid-era hoplessness, Tsotsi is a bland look at its country's economic rather than racial separations.
The universality of the film's themes is globally accessible, but its tired intentions and scarce intensity
keep it from being a great film.
In my younger days, I had the misconception that all foreign films were definitively great films. This was not a
completely ignorant idea on my part. Distribution of world cinema in America has naturally avoided whatever exists
below the bar of greatness due to limited space and tolerance in art house circles. No matter the quality, though,
foreign films could always entice me for the novelty alone. Unfamiliar locations, customs and dialogues are more
interesting, exciting for their exposure of something new and enlightening for their display of something peculiar.
The something new part became significant to me later on as I discovered more and more foreign films no less contrived or common than the lamest domestics. Ruined was my assumption that any movie not in English had to be great, and I unconsciously began to relatively compare foreign films to their English language counterparts. America's remakes of its imports can provide evidence of the more familiar grounds covered by filmmakers around the globe, but typically even the most literal adaptations abandon the expression and impression of genre formulas that continually mark the foreign originals as truly originals. The key, then, is to simply imagine the films without their foreign language and see if they still stand above our acceptance that anything with subtitles equals art.
I did this with Tsotsi, and sure enough in doing so much of what appears to be special about it is lost. It merely becomes a transported retelling of that banal reformation story involving a troubled young hoodlum who gradually converts. The Johannesburg equivalent of any stateside gangster fairy tale, Tsotsi actually feels even more forced than Hollywood's modern urban dramas.
The violent youth in this version is a nameless boy (Presley Chweneyagae) who calls himself Tsotsi, which is a slang word meaning "thug" in the city's ghetto-speak patois. His droogs are Boston (Mothusi Magano), the smart one with glasses, Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), the dangerously brutal one, and Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), the fat, simple-minded one. As usual, the protagonist seems to become the leader by way of his lack of one-dimensional distinction. Together they aren't the most feared gang in their shantytown, but they are its resident amateurs, mocked by the elder criminals, though ruthless enough for an introductory train stabbing.
Following a messy altercation with one of his boys, Tsotsi runs off into the suburbs and carjacks a woman outside her home, a majestic, gated property that more than contrasts with his own decrepit shack. It turns out there is an infant in the backseat, and after Tsotsi crashes the auto, he decides to take the child back with him. At first, Tsotsi experiences the standards of changing his first diaper, replacing the soiled nappy with a makeshift sort constructed from newspaper, and messily attempting to feed it from a can of condensed milk; his fatherly insticts are slight enough, however, to keep the tot inside a shopping bag underneath his bed.
From there the plot becomes less predictable. Rather than keeping the baby long enough for a montage of parental initiate clichés and situations of emotional metamorphosis, he dumps the kid with his neighbor, Miriam (Terry Pheto). She has a little one of her own and so Tsotsi points his gun and orders her to nurse and then care for the child he's brought to her. Eventually it is Miriam, not the infant, who aids in Tsotsi's change more.
The change comes about almost too easy. Though Tsotsi enters the staging of his correction with a clearly malleable psyche, never appearing quite as tough as he should even when demonstrating a savage conscience, his journey toward redemption is filled with triggers of such scripted eventfulness that his rise in ethicality seems to occur only because this is how movies work.
The prosaism is a shame because Tsotsi starts out so brilliantly with a gorgeous visual tone. The third-world aesthetic of the shantytown setting is made even more dreadful and more alien by establishing the location during a red-tinted night sky, as if the poverty dwellers were living on Mars. Soon after, the area is shot during a crisply bolted lightning storm, giving it an even more strikingly apocalyptic look.
Also notable for its affecting contribution to the film's mood is Tsotsi's soundtrack. It is a showcase of
Kwaito, the youth-oriented, contemporary dance music indiginous to South African townships, primarily the songs of the
popular recording artist Zola, which corresponds with the early '90s gangster rap of L.A. slums and the home-grown
reggae of '70s Jamaica. Tsotsi even reminds me of the 1972 film The Harder They Come, which exposed us not only to Jamaica's edgy
youth problem, but also, more importantly, to the sound of its culture. That movie, though, was more focused on the
music, its protagonist an aspiring singer. If Kwaito is given an international boost because of Tsotsi, that
will be an exciting aspect of its influence, but there isn't much of an attentive concentration on it within the film
to generate such an impact.
The Academy Awards are often criticized for their confusing and controversial limitations in nominating films for the foreign language prize, with this year's inclusions and exclusions particularly at issue. Despite circumstances, though, the general idea is that the five nominees are being recognized for individually providing moviegoers with not only international alternatives, but also essential, important and pre-eminent examples of what the rest of the world has to offer. After all, this is the category that multiple times honored the likes of Bergman, Fellini, DeSica and Kurosawa, and that is pretty good company to be advanced into. I can't imagine Tsotsi as possibly the successor to Jan Sverák's 1997 winner Kolya, a true "man-learns-to-love-via-forced-faux-therhood" yarn, let alone any film by one of those four.
Hood's film might not be the least remarkable nominee this year, but it is exemplary of the direction the category is headed. Currently the foreign film prize remains in high regards while the rest of the awards have been marked by surprising blemishes of poor bestowment. But to award such a film as Tsotsi with the honor would only associate the foreign category with a word appropriately derived from the Latin for world: mundane.