Tsotsi (Chweneyagae) is an emotionally frozen street hoodlum punching and kicking his way round Sowetos shanty towns. When a carjacking goes wrong and he finds himself lumbered with the baby of a wealthy couple, the child begins to thaw his damaged soul
Gavin Hood’s third feature has inspired comparisons with City Of God, yet his harrowing look at six days in the life of a Soweto thug who accidentally kidnaps and grows attached to a tiny baby shares the weary compassion of last year’s Crash as much as the brutal desperation of Fernando Mereilles’ acclaimed hit.
Hood cleverly interweaves elements of psychological thriller with a complex, layered character study, as Tsotsi (first-time actor Presley Chweneyagae) struggles to cope with his new companion, and the police close in on his trail. At times it’s a difficult watch; the lead character is borderline psychotic in his inability to empathise with those around him, but it’s testament to Chweneyagae’s outstanding performance that such a frightening individual is understood and embraced by the audience, even as his actions repel.
Shot largely in desaturated, sepia tones in Soweto’s claustrophobic shanty towns, the raw energy of Tsotsi’s existence is in neat contrast to the wealthy couple whose baby he has stolen. While some scenes (flashbacks to Tsotsi’s AIDS-blighted childhood) are rushed and a little clumsy, Hood handles his material so deftly that a conclusion which could have been mawkish and sentimental is instead bittersweet, both painful and quietly affirming.
With lively pacing, superb performances and a candid yet forgiving heart, Hood has created an inverse fairy tale that is never less than absorbing.