Presley Chweneyagae and Terry Pheto star in a film
written by Gavin Hood, based on the novel by Athol Fugard, and
directed by Hood.

“Tsotsi” translates into “thug,” a blunt, one-syllable word
which best describes the central character in this powerfully
moving — and now Academy Award-winning — South African film. And
yet the film Tsotsi — based on the novel by noted South African
playwright Athol Fugard — gains much of its fairly unique power
from its ability to balance thuggish tensions with matters of a
heart in transition. Throughout the course of the story, Tsotsi
believably metamorphoses from being an amoral dispenser of violence
to someone who discovers a surprising compassion for a human
baby — whom he accidentally acquires after stealing a car, and then
struggles to care for. By extension, Tsotsi learns to care for the
species to which the baby belongs, or so we’re left to imagine.

In other words, Tsotsi has the right stuff to both illuminate
the fragility and volatility of life in the Township and enough
sentimental ammo to nab the foreign film Oscar, which tends to go
to films with both social commentary and feel-good vibes. It was
also a favorite at the recent S.B. Film Fest.

As Tsotsi, actor Presley Chweneyagae is a compelling anti-hero
turned protagonist, who conveys much with a minimal range of facial
expressions. Crusty hardness gives way to a simmering
vulnerability, the backdrop for which we gradually learn about
through well-placed flashbacks. He works out the angst of a painful
childhood in the Johannesburg ghetto through his tough criminal
existence and encounters with his unchecked emotional life,
particularly with the help of a surrogate mother/lover (Terry
Pheto) who, ironically, he forces to breastfeed the baby at

In this film, writer/director Gavin Hood has created a dynamic
sensory experience, in a film teeming with a polished sense of
craft as well as a necessary nervous urgency. Hood also manages to
point out the seeming contradiction of the vibrancy of Township
life and the intensity and washes of hope and even jubilation in
those hardscrabble urban environments, as heard in the driving
joyful pulse of Township music, liberally lining the film’s
soundtrack. The not-dissimilar Brazilian film City of God is more
relentlessly dark and violent in its depiction of the edgy life in
the slums of Rio. Tsotsi holds out for hope and optimism, and the
human capacity for change — even in its grimmest quarters and


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