One of the most genuinely impassioned moments of the self-important 78th Academy Awards broadcast came when South African director Gavin Hood accepted the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for Tsotsi. In addition to his deeply felt words -- "Viva Africa. Viva!" -- he shared the spotlight with the film's lead actors, a pair of young black South Africans with virtually no formal training.
As the title character of Tsotsi (pronounced "SOT-see"), Presley Chweneyagae unquestionably carries himself with a rough authenticity and icy charisma. A stone killer raised in the cruel poverty of Johannesburg's Soweto slum, Tsotsi betrays no more emotion than you'd expect from a shark. He doesn't even have a name. "Tsotsi" is a slang word for "hoodlum," so it's as if he only thinks of himself generically as "Gangsta."
Like his clutch of thieving followers, the audience follows obediently in Tsotsi's wake, and the film's first propulsive minutes have the street-level energy of City of God or early Martin Scorsese. In a terrifying sequence, Tsotsi and his gang sidle up to a subway commuter and knife him so deftly that the other passengers don't even notice the death. Violence is the only language Tsotsi knows, and he's fluent in it. He savagely beats one of his gang members over a minor provocation and, later, carjacks and shoots an upper-middle-class black woman outside her gated home.
Making a lurching getaway in her luxury sedan, Tsotsi realizes he drove off with a baby in the backseat. Rather than abandon the kid inside the car, he inexplicably keeps the child and brings him back to the squalid hovel he calls home. At that point, Tsotsi's drive and provocative excitement gradually leach away. Despite the filmmaker's unquestioned sincerity, Tsotsi turns into an increasingly conventional treatment of a criminal trying to make good.
Any story involving a vulnerable baby preys on audience sympathies, and Tsotsi features harrowing moments. The young thug feeds the infant condensed milk without cleaning him up, so later the child screams from being swarmed with ants. Hood finds some opportunities for grim humor, as when Tsotsi diapers the baby with an old newspaper, or when he brings him to a neighboring single mother (Terry Pheto).
As the film makes all too clear, Tsotsi's misguided nurturing instincts represent a blind attempt to find love he never knew. In another plot thread, he harasses a wheelchair-bound invalid, demanding an explanation as to why a cripple would go on living. It's as if Tsotsi struggles to find a vocabulary for the spiritual aspects of his dilemma.
Hood's directorial vision captures both the bleak realities and vibrant flourishes of Johannesburg slum life, particularly through the soundtrack of "kwaito" music, or South African hip-hop. But Hood's screenplay, based on the only novel by playwright Athol Fugard, features such a predictable trajectory -- with such blandly direct dialogue about "decency" -- the story feels obvious and overdetermined. You half expect Tsotsi's friends to ask him, "So how's the bid for redemption going?"
Chweneyagae makes a powerful first impression and never resorts to crocodile tears to appeal to viewers. But faced with such heavy-handed material, the role calls for the depth and range of, say, Terrence Howard in Hustle & Flow to capture the complexities of a human predator learning to care for others and himself.
In one of Tsotsi's subtlest scenes, he takes the baby to see his old stomping ground, a stack of huge cement pipes, looking like the honeycomb of a giant beehive. A young runaway lives in each pipe, like future Tsotsis marking time until they grow up, and Chweneyagae conveys both hints of regret and a kind of nostalgia for his younger self. Had Tsotsi contained more such rich moments, it could have made good on the filmmakers' best intentions.