Tsotsi

Wearing is shallow humanism on its sleeves, Tsotsi, Gavin Hood's South African melodrama about the redemption of a thug, a heartless monster finds his conscience and soul when he accidentally kidnaps a baby, is made in order for the Oscars. It's the kind of middlebrow sentimental fare that the Academy voters go for, hence my prediction that the film will win the Foreign-Language Oscar comes March 5.

The first film to be picked up for distribution by Miramax in the post Harvey Weinstein regime, Tsotsi has been winning audience awards in festival after festival, including Toronto Festival last year. Nonetheless, though well-intentioned, this messagy “one from the heart” film is too simplistic for sophisticated audiences, let alone critics.

Examining the film's basic ingredients, it's easy to see why festival audiences have embraced it. For starters, Tsotsi is a positive, even upbeat, morality tale from South Africa, a country inflicted with AIDS and other health problems. The film is based on the novel of Atol Fugard, the well-respected writer, who's been promoting the film as one of the very best films to be produced in his region. Add to it an unanticipated encounter between an emotionless thug and an innocent baby done in an exuberantly, pseudo-Fernando Meirelles style, and voila, you have a winning combination.

Let's me start with the visual style: Director Hood decorates his engaging tale with erratic but attention-grabbing artistic treatment, which could be described as second-tier Mereilles, the gifted director of the Brazilian movie “City of God,” which was also about children in crime, and more recently “The Constant Gardener.”

The film's protag Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) is a 19-year-old thug and petty-criminal living in the slums of Johannesburg. One day, stealing a car from a rich woman, he realizes that that unknowingly he had kidnapped her three-month old baby boy, who was in the backseat. At first, Tsotsi considers abandoning him, but then some latent emotion brings out a hint of tenderness, and he stuffs the tot into a sack and goes home.

When the baby begins to cry, Tsotsi puts him inside a paper bag, takes him back to his tin hut with the other loot, and slides him under his bed; at this point, the baby is just an object.

The saga proceeds like a catalogue of brutally insensitive acts. Tsotsi initially uses newspapers for diapers. He then neglects to clean leftover milk from the baby's face, which of course brings ants into the makeshift crib. Struggling with how to feed the baby, crusts of bread or milk, Tsotsi forces a mother to breastfeed his toy at gunpoint.

For the first hour, it seems like Hood has compiled mechanically a list of bad deeds for Tsotsi to do. Hence, he forces a woman at gunpoint to give up her breast milk. And throughout, Hood condescends to his central character, deluding himself that this strategy is necessary in order to “humanize” him in the later chapters.

As writer and director, Hood's calculated, and in more than one instance manipulative, approach to the material is problematic, to say the least. Are we meant to think that Tsotsi represents a certain class of innocent, immature men in South Africa Is he mentally ill or just a victim of bad circumstances

Hood fails to convey South Africa's class divide, and he cheaply and manipulatively uses Africa's AIDS crisis to validate the chaos of Tsotsi's life, as if the young man's poverty, lack of education, and parents' tragic past were not sufficient enough to make the story urgent and resonant. Hood depicts the disease that killed Tsotsi's mother as South Africa continues to struggle with HIV/AIDS prevention.

Tsotsi, which means “thug,” is not a chronicle of a gang and its crime spree. This may explain why Tsotsi is the only developed character in the movie; his band of thug is just background.

Though only 19, Tsotsi has become so brutalized that he is emotionally num, out of touch with any feelings. His apathy to life is presented as protection and survival mechanism. When people try to crack his tough facade, it results in uncontrollable rage and repellent violence. During one such savage spree, Tsotsi pummels the face of one of his protgs, an alcoholic would-be-teacher-turned-felon (Mothusi Magano).

In between these episodes, we get flashbacks from Tsotsi's youth, as, for example, an image of his mother dying from AIDS, or His father breaking the back of his dog, after which Tsotsi runs away and lives in a barren field.

As if to remind audiences that he has not forgotten the broader socio-historical context, in several scenes, posters proclaim in the background: “We are all affected by HIV and AIDS.” The lethal virus-infected are not the only ones dying. Johannesburg's streets are filled with orphans who might become criminals, just like Tsotsi.

Calculatingly written and directed, the film displays aggressively its pounding soundtrack of streetwise “Kwaito” tunes, and Lance Gewer'simagery somehow turns poverty and shabbiness into handsome sights.

It doesn't help that Chweneyagae is not a particularly skillful actor; he seems to adopt one or two expressions for the duration. Lack of nuance in his acting, combined with same in the writing, fails to register the inner conflicts of his character.

The supporting cast is better. Terry Pheto is effective as the terrorized breastfeeding widow, and Jerry Mofokeng also registers strongly as a legless panhandler who spits on Tsotsi's sneakers.

At the risk of sounding cynical, I'd like to propose that the story's message may not be all that different from the 1985 Oscar-nominated French comedy, Three Men and a Craddle, and its 1987 American remake, Three Man and a Baby, in which an unanticipated encounter with an infant melts the hearts of tough men. The first time I saw this image was in a John Wayne Western directed by John Ford in 1949, Three Godfathers, when the macho Duke held a baby in his arms.