Bringing Up Baby … In a Gritty South African Shantytown

It’s a story so familiar it could take place in any slum. A young criminal, a bad seed through and through, heads deeper and deeper into darkness when a chance encounter (maybe a baby, a paraplegic, a good woman — or all three!) thaws his heart and sets him on the fast track to redemption. “Tsotsi,” Oscar’s pick for best foreign film, takes place in a bustling, gorgeously shot South African shantytown. Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) — literally “hoodlum” — is the lost soul, and his road is as bumpy as it gets.

Courtesy of Miramax
Tough Love: Presley Chweneyagae plays Tsotsi, whose name means “hoodlum.” An A.I.D.S.-orphaned street kid, Tsotsi is a successful thief, but less adept with a baby.

An A.I.D.S. orphan, barely a man, Tsotsi leads a small gang in theft and murder. He wears a dead-eyed mask of a face through it all, but his past sneaks back when he steals a rich woman’s car, only to discover a baby in the backseat. Newcomer Chweneyagae gives a startlingly pro performance, teetering on the sharp edge of violence, keeping the audience uneasy instead of rooting for him outright. Yet it’s the Pampers-ad-worthy-urchin’s welfare that provokes the most tension (and sappy smiles) as Tsotsi carries him around town in a shopping bag, stores him under his bed and finds him covered in ants in the morning. He forcefully enlists the aid of Miriam (Terry Pheto, another stunning newbie), a neighboring widow and mother who makes gorgeous mobiles — stained glass ones when she’s happy, rusted metal ones when she’s sad. Her brave defiance actually gets Tsotsi to put the gun down, and his eyes begin to shine with a fatherly light during these play-family dates.

Take these encounters, add a few subplots and stir in some rather too explanatory childhood flashbacks, and it comes as no surprise when Tsotsi starts to shun his friends and his ways.

This tale of redemption may have “arch plot” written all over it, but that’s the cool thing about those tried-and-true stories — since it’s easy as pie to guess the developments, all the delicious treats are in the details. Sure, Tsotsi will get from A to B, but at what cost? Between the gang-ridden streets pulsing to kwaito music (addictive hip-hop tinged with dance hall — the soundtrack is a revelation) and the gritty/beautiful/mundane details of life in and around Johannesburg, “Tsotsi” achieves its most laudable prowess — by letting us forget its backbone and go along for the unabashedly emotional rollercoaster. Sincerity is key here; luckily, it pours out of every inch of the astounding cast. South African director Gavin Hood flirted with the idea of casting American actors, but instead headed home to shoot the film with actors speaking the local patois.

This is no treatise on postapartheid South Africa, however. All the characters in the film (save a cop) are black, rich or poor. If anything, with scattered public warning posters and the implied culprit in Tsotsi’s mother’s death, it’s a subtle, earnest reminder of the omnipresent, violence-breeding effects of A.I.D.S. on the African continent.