I’m probably pigeonholing myself as, “that disgruntled film reviewer who dislikes South African films that do well”. Whenever a South African film gets nominated for a best Foreign film Oscar – or any other award – critics rave, the South African public gets behind the film and it usually gets described as “the one” that will get just that little bit closer to putting the South African film industry on the map. I almost always disagree with these observations. (Granted, we have only ever had two nominations for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, the undeserving Yesterday (2004) and now Tsotsi.)
When a local gangster, or ‘tsotsi’, (Presley Chweneyagae) hijacks a car from a wealthy suburb he is shocked to discover that he has also accidentally kidnapped a three-month-old baby, which was on the backseat. Normally ruthless and uncaring, he takes the child back with him to his home and attempts to care for it himself. As he spends more time with the infant he begins to re-examine his life and the past that has made him the man he is now.
Tsotsi is the better, by leaps and bounds, of the two South African films nominated for an Oscar. Gavin Hood is a filmmaker that has a keen eye for visuals. He’s an individual that knows film: visible by the slick approach he adopts to the movie. It feels big budget. Tsotsi is glossy and immediately identifiable as a film that carries a lot of production value. Put this together with a thumping Kwaito soundtrack, and director of photography Lance Gewer’s dark gritty approach to the look of the film and you have a movie that fulfills the first half of the requirement to being an Oscar film. It looks and sounds good. Really good.
Tsotsi has a well conceived and thought out script. It doesn’t force-feed you any information and is a film that you have to think about, both during its viewing and afterwards. It’s a nice change from the majority of South African film that can be extremely didactic at times. The result? There will be numerous interpretations around the film and I think that’s great; it’s time people spoke about our movies.
Tsotsi’s plot, however, begins to thin out as it starts to enter its second half. The setup is great, the characters are well established and there is an extreme sense of menace around what is going to happen to the baby and how Tsotsi will react if caught, but this film needed more meat.
The problem was best described to me by a colleague as the film, “needing a B story line.” It’s extremely true. I wanted to be absorbed by this film, and was for the first half, but I will admit to having my mind wander on more than one occasion during the second half. Tsoti’s personal journey needed more than just identification with a small child.
The search by the cops for the child could have, possibly, provided this but, they are hardly ever seen and as you watch the film you get the sense that they aren’t really trying to find the baby, even when they claim to be. The second problem is that the film climaxes at the three quarter mark. The result? It ends rather limply (excuse all the sexual metaphors) because the most dramatic elements have been exhausted way too soon. Sure, Tsotsi has undergone a change, but starting off as raw as it does, the film should have held onto this and finished with the same intensity.
The unknown Presley Chweneyagae generally does a fine job as the troubled gangster. His performance is possibly too reserved in areas; I feel that there could have been more to it at key moments, but as the central figure of the film, he manages to hold everything together. The secondary cast does provide some problems though. Purely from a casting point of view they are possibly too familiar to an audience. Ian Roberts is in it as a cop, again, and so are Percy Matsemela, Jerry Mofokeng and Craig Palm – all three whom starred alongside each other in 2004’s comedy Max and Mona. Casting both of them as cops in the same film, alongside each other, not only draws attention to that previous film but also weakened this new film for me.
The spread of features nominated for the best foreign film Oscar this year are quite diverse and Tsotsi is up against films from Italy, Germany, France and Palestine. I personally don’t think it’s worthy of an Oscar purely because it’s not as complete as it should have been. It doesn’t fulfill the requirements, in my opinion, of a great Oscar film.
Tsotsi is possibly the best crafted and most visually arresting film to ever come out of South Africa. It deserves to do well on these merits alone but when it comes down to the script it lacks those qualities that will make you want to see it again: Those qualities that define Oscar winning films.