Tsotsi (Tsotsitaal)

The sky over the ramshackle ghetto in “Tsotsi” is a dirty brown. Beneath it are shacks made of flimsy wood and tin. There’s smoke and filth everywhere. It’s hell on earth. What better setting for a tale of redemption?

“Tsotsi” is a slang term for a thug in Johannesburg, and it’s the only name the film’s protagonist (played by Presley Chweneyagae) goes by. So long has the young man been parentless, directionless and given to delinquency that no one knows his real name. He’s a tsotsi, nothing more.

With his fellow hoodlums and devoted followers Boston (Mothusi Magano), Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe) and Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), Tsotsi makes his living through theft. Boston, who was supposedly once a teacher, is horrified when a simple robbery on a subway train turns into murder; for voicing his objection, Tsotsi beats him savagely.

One night Tsotsi steals a woman’s car only to find her baby boy in the backseat. He leaves the car on the roadside — when police find it the next day, it has been completely stripped as if by a swarm of locusts — and takes the baby home. He has no idea what to do with a wailing infant, but fashions a diaper out of newspapers and gives him some condensed milk. When his gang members come by, he hides the kid under the bed and feigns illness to get out of hanging out with them. He has to figure out how to deal with the baby.

If there’s one thing that can take the beastliness out of a brute like Tsotsi, it’s fatherhood, which of course is where the movie’s theme of redemption come in. Unable to handle the baby on his own, Tsotsi accosts a neighbor woman who has a baby, too, and forces her at gunpoint to nurse little David (as the stolen baby comes to be called). She would do it willingly, but the only way Tsotsi knows how to get what he wants is by force. Soon he and the woman, Miriam (Terry Pheto), bond over the child, with Tsotsi beginning to realize the need for reform in his life.

Director Gavin Hood, who adapted the film from Athol Fugard’s novel, makes his points subtly, without the underlining that usually goes on in movies about characters in need of change. Tsotsi is a thug of few words, and newcomer Presley Chweneyagae portrays him in simple terms: He’s a cold-hearted villain, and over time he gradually becomes less so. No epiphanies, no one moment that changes his life, just a gradual learning process.

Together with cinematographer Lancer Gewer, Hood paints the shantytown and nearby Johannesburg in stark, grim colors, occasionally lightened to accompany an instruction from Miriam on the purpose of art or a tender moment involving the babies. You can feel the oppressive and dark amorality of Tsotsi’s life, just as clearly as you can feel his eventual reformation. This is an uncommonly moving film, with almost no fireworks to highlight the parts that are supposed to be moving.

A- (1 hr., 35 min.; in Tsotsitaal (a South African patois) with subtitles; R, abundant harsh profanity, a lot of violence.)