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Friday, March 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Tsotsi": A tale of redemption

Seattle Times movie critic

"Tsotsi," winner of the Academy Award for best foreign-language film, is the story of a young man with no name. He (Presley Chweneyagae) is called Tsotsi, which means thug or gangster in South African street language; surely he has a real name, but he's not about to reveal it.

Tsotsi lives in a miserable shack in a Johannesburg shantytown, and he ekes out a living with petty crime. Still in his teens, with the face of a cherub gone wrong, he has wondering eyes that make a touching counterpoint to his ever-present anger. And we know his life is destined to change when a routine carjacking results in unexpected cargo: a 3-month-old baby in the back seat.

Gavin Hood's film, based on a novel by South African playwright Athol Fugard, unfolds along lines both fresh and familiar. Anyone who's seen a coming-of-age movie knows what will happen when the baby enters Tsotsi's life: The hardened young man will soften a bit, sensing the need to take responsibility. And his instinct to keep the baby and create a tiny, idealized family tells us volumes about Tsotsi's past. A flashback, midfilm, shows the horrors of his childhood; it's effective but unnecessary, as it's already clear that something haunts this young man.

Movie review 3 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Tsotsi," with Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto, Zola, Kenneth Nkosi, Mothusi Magano, Zenzo Ngqobe. Written and directed by Gavin Hood, based on the novel by Athol Fugard. 94 minutes. Rated R for language and some violent content. In Tsotsitaal with English subtitles. Guild 45th.

But Hood gives the film energy by its unexpected locations, a score both jolting and soaring, and a carefully constructed screenplay that makes everyone in this film a dimensional, complicated character. The baby's distraught mother, seemingly fragile, tells a reporter, "If he has hurt my child in any way, I will kill him with my own hands" — and there's a steeliness to her voice that tells you she means it. A man in a wheelchair sits at the subway station, playing a small role in the film and yet giving the impression of a complex story of his own.

And a young widow (Terry Pheto), whom Tsotsi forces at gunpoint to breastfeed the baby, becomes this story's voice of reason. "It won't make you his mother," she tells Tsotsi, as he brings canned milk to feed the baby. Her own life is complicated — she has her own baby, and a husband lost too soon — and she's at first frightened by and then drawn to this young man whose vulnerabilities become increasingly apparent. "I'll take him back for you," she offers gently, understanding that Tsotsi no longer knows what the right course of action would be.

But he does attempt to do the right thing, and the film's final scenes are startlingly emotional, as "Tsotsi" grabs its audience and pulls it in. By its end, these characters matter, and the note of hope in its conclusion feels like a gift.

You would think that the sight of a grown-up hand holding a tiny one would have become a greeting-card cliché; in this case, you would be quite mistaken.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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