The stars must be favorably aligned for films from South Africa. The HBO-produced Yesterday, nominated for an Academy Award in 2005, just won a prestigious Peabody. And Tsotsi, opening Friday at the Roxy in Burlington, successfully competed with excellent movies about the Holocaust and Palestinian issues, among others, to nab the foreign-language Oscar at this year's extravaganza.
Not everyone was pleased. Some critics have complained that Tsotsi, which traces the redemption of a small-time gangster, is too predictable and message-driven. Onstage in Hollywood, director Gavin Hood certainly played to the masses at home by punctuating his acceptance speech with the popular power-to-the-people cry, "Amandla!"
Few can argue with the 94-minute motion picture's pedigree, however. Hood adapted venerable playwright Athol Fugard's only novel, written in 1961 but first published in 1980. The book addresses what was then the country's vile official policy of racial separation. Set in contemporary South Africa, the screen version of Tsotsi examines how poverty, crime and AIDS are now decimating the post-apartheid society.
The title character is known only by a nom de guerre that means "thug" in the Tsotsi-Taal patois spoken on the streets of Johannesburg. Through-out the film this dialect alternates with Afrikaans; both are subtitled in English. The soundtrack's persistent "kwaito" music is hip-hop with local lyrics and a Third World beat.
A 19-year-old living in a miserable Soweto shanty, Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) is the ringleader in a quartet of thieves. In a truly disturbing scene on a crowded train, the most hard-bitten member of the group, Butcher (Zenzo Ngobe), kills an elderly robbery victim for no apparent reason.
Afterwards, a guilt-stricken Boston (Mothusi Magano) brings up the dicey topic of decency. When he accuses the impassive Tsotsi of having no feelings, his punishment is a beating that leaves him blind in one eye.
In a flashback sequence that is not particularly subtle, Hood reveals what makes Tsotsi tick: He becomes an orphan in the wake of his mother's death from AIDS and his drunken father's continuing brutality. Like an untold number of fellow homeless children, the boy learns to survive by his wits in the merciless slums.
Fast forward to Tsotsi's current existence. He carjacks a BMW in an upscale black community and shoots the female driver, but a big surprise awaits him. There's a baby on board.
An odd-couple odyssey begins, as Tsotsi slips the infant into a large paper shopping bag and abandons the automobile in favor of rough-edged, surrogate fatherhood. Even dirty diapers don't deter him from a sudden inclination to nurture, albeit very awkwardly. Newspapers are used as a crude substitute for Huggies. He clumsily pours canned milk into the hungry child's mouth, which soon attracts ants.
The remarkably resourceful Tsotsi comes up with an interim solution by repeatedly forcing a widowed neighbor named Miriam (Terry Pheto) to breastfeed the kidnapped baby along with her own kid of about the same age. Luckily, she has the wisdom to instill trust in her dangerous, uninvited visitor. Her serenity is the antithesis of his intensity.
These encounters, exquisitely conveyed by two fine young actors, also provide the antihero with his first sense of life's possibilities. Despite their equally nondescript exteriors, her home is as beautiful within as Tsotsi's is grim. He's curious about the mobiles that hang from her ceiling. Miriam's explanation of her artistic process hints at how emotions can be channeled: She fashioned one of them with rusted metal while feeling sad, and another with pieces of colorful glass when happy.
This time with Miriam offers a brief respite from the suspense of Tsotsi's increasing peril as he dodges his splintered gang, the police and the missing baby's distraught parents. The real kick, though, is the awakening of consciousness in a damaged human being. Power to the people, indeed.
Mea culpa. A few weeks ago, I committed a journalism no-no in a telephone interview with Sas Carey. The Middlebury filmmaker recalled moving to the Northeast Kingdom in the 1960s as a back-to-the-land enthusiast, then spoke about shooting her new documentary (Gobi Women's Song) with funding from "donors." But I misheard the word as "stoners" -- seemingly copacetic with a former counterculture lifestyle. Rather than double-check the quote, I just laughed. When she didn't ask what I found so amusing, my assumption was that "stoners" had been an intentional quip. I extend my sincere apologies to Carey and her sober donors.