on February 24, 2006 by Tim Cogshell
"Tsotsi," pronounced sot-si, is actually a South African word that means something like thug or hood. Here it is name of the central character in the film adaptation of playwright Athol Fugard's only novel. The book was published in 1980 at the height of worldwide indignation over the system of apartheid established in South Africa, but it was written some 30 years earlier in the mid-'50s -- yet the film is set contemporarily, which is indicative of the ongoing problem of abject poverty in the townships even during the post-apartheid era. "Tsotsi" chronicles six days in the life of the titular character, a young man (Presley Chweneyagae) orphaned at an early age who had to group up quickly and learn to fend for himself. Tsotsi is bright, capable and absolutely brutal. When he jacks a car one rainy night and finds a baby in the backseat, memories, long suppressed, about his own mother and how that loss affected him come rushing back, changing his life forever.

"Tsotsi" stares directly and unflinchingly at man's inhumanity to man (and woman), but the film finds victims not only in those affected by crime but in the perpetrators of violent crime as well. Aside from the power and beauty of Fugard's prose (much of which finds its way in to debuting director Gavin Hood's screenplay), "Tsotsi" finds a power and beauty in almost everything on which its lens focuses. Soweto bristles with an energy and grit that is palpable. There are several sequences played in pouring rain that are so lovely one swoons -- yet they are so desperately sad one cannot help but ache with empathy.

Also debuting in their first feature films are the young leads, Presley Chweneyagae as Tsotsi and Terry Pheto as Miriam, a young woman to whom Tsotsi turns to during this seminal moment in his life. Simply put, their performances are extraordinary. Though the novel is primarily concerned with the effect of the apartheid system on its characters and what they do, the adaptation speaks more directly to the lingering effects of that system (undereducation and poverty), and the piercing hopelessness left in its wake. Gavin Hood's adaptation is a notable achievement. Indeed, this film is a notable achievement for all involved. Starring Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto and Mothusi Magano. Directed and written by Gavin Hood. Produced by Peter Fudakowski. A Miramax release. Drama. English-, Zulu-, Xhosa- and Afrikaans-language; subtitled. Rated R for language and some strong violent content. Running time: 95 min

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