Rapturously received by preem auds and sparking acquisition interest from mini-major studios at the Edinburgh film fest, intense Blighty-South African co-prod has the right stuff to be a breakout hit if distribs market it cannily. Third film by helmer Gavin Hood, pic tells of a township hoodlum, who learns to care for an infant whose mother he shot.

Rapturously received by premiere auds and sparking acquisition interest from mini-major studios at the Edinburgh film fest, intense Blighty-South African co-prod “Tsotsi” has the right stuff to be a breakout hit if distribs market it cannily. The third film by helmer Gavin Hood (“A Reasonable Man”), contempo-set “Tsotsi” tells of a township hoodlum (an ace debut for Presley Chweneyagae), who learns to care for an infant whose mother he shot. Powered by a pounding soundtrack of dance hall Kwaito music, the pic has vital, urban energy similar to the Brazilian crossover “City of God” and but with a tauter, more conventional storyline.

The plot has been carved by writer-director Hood from a sprawling novel by Athol Fugard (“Boesman and Lena”) and transposed gracefully from the early ’60s to the present. More than most recently exported South African-set pics, “Tsotsi” gets across the ruthless violence in cities like Johannesburg, the setting here.

Authenticity is enhanced by location use, while the main characters speak Tsotsi-Taal, a patois made up of English, Africaans and words from several tribal dialects that requires subtitles throughout.

The title character Tsotsi’s name means literally “thug,” a moniker he picked up on the streets after running away from a brutal father (Israel Makoe) and a mother (Sindi Shambule) dying of AIDS. (Young Tsotsi is played in flashbacks by Benny Moshe, the grown Tsotsi by semi-pro legit thesp Chweneyagae.)

The eventual revelation of Tsotsi’s real name is cleverly used to signal his recovery of human values.

Tsotsi and his gang stab a man on the subway with an ice pick to steal his wallet in a tense, wordless scene that makes fine use of sound and close-ups. Afterward, at a township drinking den, Tsotsi brutally beats fellow gangster Boston (Mothusi Magano) when the latter dares to ask if there was ever anyone Tsotsi really cared about.

Seemingly on a whim, Tsotsi hijacks the car of a middle-class black woman (Nambitha Mpumlwana). He casually shoots her and drives off, only to discover her baby boy in the back seat. Abandoning the car, he reluctantly takes the nipper home in a paper shopping bag.

Caring for the child gradually repairs Tsotsi’s broken spirit, a trajectory that could have been mawkish or unbelievable in lesser hands, but which Hood and particularly Chweneyagae make utterly convincing. To feed the mewling infant, Tsotsi pressgangs the services of a widowed single mother, Miriam (Terry Pheto, luminous), who shares her milk at first at gunpoint and later voluntarily.

Slightly slower third act sees Tsotsi return to the baby’s parents’ home with his gang for a burglary, where events take an unexpected turn. Final suspenseful scene ends on transcendent, just-so note.

Overall, pic strikes nice balance between generic, gangster movie set-up and purely localized trappings. Perfs by leads are strong enough to distract from limitations of some supporting players.

Widescreen lensing by Lance Gewer is aces, offering a dense panorama for the drama. Several flashy crane shots capture the teeming township streets, while dramatic quasi-noir lighting that renders the seamy atmosphere of Tsotsi’s hovel contrasts with jewel-like tones of Miriam’s house.

Editing is generally unobtrusive except in a scene that flash cuts between older and younger incarnations of Tsotsi running across a rain-drenched landscape, a segment that would feel melodramatic if it weren’t for the accompanying hard-edged Kwaito soundtrack.

Track could make a strong album appealing to the world-music niche, though it lacks the well-known Western hits that made the accompanying album for “City of God” a minor hit.

Tsotsi

U.K. - South Africa

Production

A U.K. Film and TV Production Co., the Industrial Development Corp. of South Africa, the National Film and Video Foundation of South Africa production, in association with Moviworld. (International sales: The Little Film Co., Studio City, Calif.) Produced by Peter Fudakowski. Executive producers, Sam Bhembe, Robbie Little, Doug Mankoff, Basil Ford, Joseph D'Morais, Alan Howden, Rupert Lywood. Co-producer, Paul Raleigh. Directed, written by Gavin Hood, based on a novel by Athol Fugard.

Crew

Camera (color, Super 35mm widescreen), Lance Gewer; editor, Megan Gill; music, Mark Kilian, Paul Hepker; production designer, Emelia Weavind; art director, Mark Walker; costume designers, Nadia Kruger, Pierre Vienings; sound (Dolby Digital), Shaun Murdoch; supervising sound editor, Juli Vandenberg. Reviewed at Edinburgh Film Festival (competing), Aug. 19, 2005. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Contemporary World Cinema. ) Running time: 91 MIN.

Cast

With: Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto, Kenneth Nkosi, Mothusi Magano, Zenzo Ngqobe, Zola, Rapulana Seiphemo, Nambitha Mpumlwana, Nonthuthu Sibisi, Nthuthuko Sibisi, Jerry Mofokeng, Ian Roberts, Percy Matsemela, Benny Moshe, Thembi Nyandeni, Israel Makoe, Sindi Shambule. (Tsotsi-Taal, English dialogue)
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