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"Tsotsi" is a South African slang term for "thug." It's the name by which the lead character in the South African film Tsotsi identifies himself, and it's apt. Somewhere buried deep in his past, Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) also has a Christian name, but now a hard, unflinching exterior is all that this sad figure allows the world to see.
Tsotsi heads a small gang of similar thugs, robbing and occasionally murdering random victims. Remorseless and unfazed, Tsotsi seems barely human. His gangster life is shaken, though, by the arrival of an unlikely charge: a helpless, crying baby.
Tsotsi (rated R for language and some strong violent content) won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this year. Although it's not as powerful or affecting as the also-nominated German film Sophie Scholl, the film is a fascinating portrait of South African street life and works better than its somewhat artificial concept suggests. The film is incredibly brutal at times in depicting Johannesburg gang life, though, and contains prolific bad language. (There's also some very brief nudity during a breastfeeding scene, but-despite a misleading trailer-the film contains no sexual situations.)
Tsotsi's forced entry into a fatherhood of sorts is the unintended consequence of a horrible crime. After mercilessly shooting a woman in the chest and taking her car, he realizes that the woman's infant child is strapped in the back seat.
When Tsotsi abandons the car, he does a strange thing. He gently lays the baby in a shopping bag and walks home. And, improbable as it seems, Tsotsi gradually begins to assume a role of responsibility for the child. Tsotsi's early, pathetic attempts to care for the infant are almost as horrific and hard to watch as his criminal activity, but, at the same time, a glimmer of compassion appears in that unsmiling face.
Director Gavin Hood wisely deals with a premise that verges on Hollywood high concept ("Four Thugs and Baby") with understatement and, for the most part, without sentimentality. Mr. Chweneyagae's similarly understated performance helps the film enormously, providing slight indications of Tsotsi's "redemptive" journey.
Ultimately, though, Tsotsi's redemption may leave viewers feeling empty. There's no fundamental, spiritual change evident-the hard surface is cracked, but the film never really deals with what we find underneath.