AFI Fest Report: Tsotsi Review

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Checking in once again from AFI here's Peter Martin with a quick look at one of the year's big buzz films: Gavin Hood's Tsotsi.


Yes, TSOTSI lives up to the hype.

The South African film was a surprise winner of the Audience Award at Toronto -- a surprise because it screened late in that festival -- and was one of the first purchases by the Weinstein-less "New" Miramax. It has received very good advance word, and sold out both screenings (Friday night and Saturday afternoon), with crowds of people turned away. During the introduction, director Gavin Hood expressed hope that anticipation had not been raised too high for the audience to give it a fair shot.

Tsotsi -- which in a South African language means "thug" -- is the name adapted by a ferociously dangerous young man who lives in a shantytown. He and his small gang prowl the city like a pack of hyenas, looking for potential victims with pitiless, predatory eyes. Their method of attack is vividly demonstrated on a subway, as things go terribly wrong for their hapless prey.

After Tsotsi and a conscience-stricken member of the gang have a violent falling out, Tsotsi happens upon a luxury car with its door open and motor running, as a woman tries to get her husband to open the driveway gate. He can't pass up such a luscious opportunity, especially in the pouring rain, and when the woman tries to stop him, he shoots her at point blank range without a moment's hesitation.

Only as he drives away does he realize that a baby is in the back seat, and that starts Tsotsi down a path that will change his life. The baby serves as a touchstone for his own childhood that was cut short, his emotional growth stunted to the point that Tsotsi really has no idea how to relate to anyone other than himself. And it's no wonder when we're shown that he spent year living in a large, open-ended drainage pipe, stacked with other pipes in a below-poverty level version of a highrise.

Director Hood has an exquisite eye for widescreen compositions, and keeps the soundtrack alive with pulsating music that serves as both counterpoint and underscore. The performances are amazing, especially when you consider that several of the actors were born in shantytowns and have emerged in their first professional roles.

Adapting a novel by noted playwright Althol Fugard, Hood preserves the essence of the fully-formed characters and avoids the temptation to ladle on the sentiment. He walks through a minefield and emerges without a misstep.

A third screening may be added at AFI FEST next weekend, but you'd need to call the box office to confirm day and time. Hopefully the new Miramax will not sit on this too long. Highly recommended.

Review by Peter Martin.

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