Mar 22, 2006 at 12:00 am

Tsotsi is difficult to watch; the characters and situations depicted in this South African film are so unrelentingly grim that it's all but impossible to find any joy at all in the bleak lives of title character Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) and his mates, violent shantytown thugs who make a living by stealing. But that's what this movie is about — finding humanity and beauty amid mayhem and rubbish.

When we meet the teenaged Tsotsi, he's just jacked a car from a woman in an upper-class Johannesburg neighborhood (of course, he had to shoot her to do it) without realizing a baby was sleeping soundly in the backseat. When he discovers the child, he's overcome with guilt, fear and blind panic.

It sounds clichéd: Hard-nosed thug meets kid, high jinks ensue. But director-screenwriter Gavin Hood manages to create a film that transcends the obvious — and his efforts were rewarded with the 2006 Oscar for best foreign language film.

During the next six days, Tsotsi, practically a child himself, attempts to care for the baby and conceal his presence in the small studio he calls home. Tsotsi's depressing, windowless room is actually a step up from what he's used to; through flashbacks, we learn he spent part of his youth living in a length of concrete pipe with a pack of feral children. As the story unfolds, we learn more about Tsotsi's past, and how the brutality he experienced has shaped him into the thug he is today.

Despite the insight, it's still hard to fully sympathize with a habitually violent character. But that's part of what makes Chweneyagae's sensitive, poignant performance so moving; he's reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes at his most luminous, and it's a wholly impressive turn for a young, first-time actor.

Hood makes his points with a light hand, trusting his actors and his source material — Tsotsi was adapted from a play by award-winning South African playwright Athol Fugard. Hood never cops out, forcing the audience to deal with the totality of Tsotsi's character, even when it's not pretty.

Chweneyagae is flanked by a stellar cast, including Nambitha Mpumlwana and Rapulana Seiphemo as the baby's parents and Ian Roberts as the cop on Tsotsi's trail. Terry Pheto shines as Miriam, the neighborhood girl Tsotsi forces to care for the baby.

The story never climbs up on a soapbox, but the social commentary is still present; after all, the politics of race are never far away in South Africa. Roberts, the police captain, is white, while his underlings are black. Tsotsi, who is black, lives in a shantytown, but his upper-class victims live a convenient walk away in a lush villa filled with art and comfort.

By the time the movie reaches its heart-stopping, terrifying, unexpectedly beautiful conclusion, it's clear that no one will walk away untouched — not Tsotsi, not the parents of the kidnapped baby, and certainly not the audience.


Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).

Nancy Kaffer writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].