Sunday, July 30, 2006

Motherless Child To A Motherless Child

I mentioned a week or so ago on this blog that I tried to go see Tsotsi, the South African Oscar-winning film but was side-tracked by technical problems of a cycling nature. Yesterday I finally got to see the film, and as far as Best Films in a Foreign Language go, it's not all that bad. Usually films that win in this category play off a winning formula that involves the initially difficult relationship between a single adult male and a cute child, text-book examples are Kolya, Cinema Paradiso, Life is Beautiful. Not all the films of this sort have been that bad, Bille August's Pelle the Conqueror and Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt By The Sun hold up to this day to an extent that one forgets that they won the damn award in the first place. And I do still retain a certain regard for the mad Chaplinesque genius of Benigni in Life is Beautiful, though the ending was too saccharine for my taste.

Tsotsi, directed by South African stalwart Gavin Hood, adapted by himself from an English-language novel by renowned playwright Athol Fugard, varies slightly this trend in winners of the award by reducing the ages of the two principles drastically. It is rather a relationship between a teenage hood and a six-month old baby. The film is set in Soweto, and, unlike U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha, the other South African award-winning film released here this year, is not primarily Xhosa-language, but Tsotsitaal (thug-speak) a township patois composed of words from Zulu, English, Tswana, Sotho and other native languages. The shadow of AIDS, which would have been absent from the original novel, published in 1980, hangs over the film. We see on a number of occasions billboards reminding people that AIDS concerns "us all" and the hero of the title Tsotsi has lost his mother from some disease, and he is young enough for it to have been the current big killer in Africa. Tsotsi, then is a motherless child, rather than sometimes feeling like one. Having fled his abusive father, he grows up in the townships where he makes a reputation for himself as a particularly bloodthirsty thug, appalling even members of his own gang when he gratuitously knifes a commuter on the Underground. When he goes off for some time on his own, he carjacks a wealthy black suburban woman and shoots her when she resists. It is only upon abandoning the car that he realises he has inadvertently abducted her baby son.

Tsotsi's hard man image recedes momentarily and he takes the child with him, being so caring as to force a neighbouring new mother to breast-feed the baby at gunpoint. Meanwhile a hunt is on for the kidnapper, and he complicates things by returning to the scene of the crime, and robbing the baby's father of cash so as to pay the compliant breast feeder. This is where the film's problems lie; structurally things are far too episodic, and every incident is inserted into the action in order to serve the plot and move it forward. It is too crude, and having three key scenes orchestrated at the same house, moving the hero there in each instance is far too artificial.

Other than this the film is a fair stab at portraying the Johannesberg underworld, the gangsters, led by the Kwaito (South African dancehall) star Zola, are all scarily credible. Tsotsi, played by Presley Chweneyagae, is a lost soul from the moment we first see him, his eyes expressing an infinite sadness, his age uncertain, anything from 14 to 30. That said it is not terribly convincing that he makes such a sudden change from heartless killer to guardian of a lost child (whom he gives his own real name, David). The recurring flash-backs to his mother's deathbed give the film a false air, as does the cheap atmospheric music that takes over from the vibrant Kwaito in the last half hour. A film that starts off with much promise fades out into sentimentalism, beating a well-trodden path. No wonder the ultra-conservative Academy members loved it so.