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Heroes of the Zeroes: Tsotsi

by on November 7, 2010
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Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000-2009.

Rated R

On its face, 2005’s “Tsotsi” sounded like a South African trap of after-school sap — a baby-faced teenage gangbanger softening after he takes a baby into his care.

Writer-director Gavin Hood easily could’ve stripped down Athol Fugard’s novel of personal responsibility and cultural empathy into a Hallmark-esque distillation of “City of God.” Instead, Hood retained this redemption song’s minor key — bullets, blood and beatings meant to illustrate a descent into dangerous living.

Using his slang name for “thug” as a shield, Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) is inwardly troubled by a homicide his gang has committed. Tsotsi’s hesitancy suggests he’s not fully hardened, and after unknowingly stealing a car with a baby in the backseat, he encounters further obstacles in surrendering to gang life.

This Oscar winner for Best Foreign-Language Film takes a journey more social than sentimental, although it’s hard to not hope Tsotsi will regain compassion chased out of him as a child.

Tsotsi is slow to comprehend the toddler’s comforts, but the baby reminds him he is still a child and that he’s headed down a path from which he fled in fright as a boy — to shantytown shacks that seemed a great place to forget troubles, but emboldened bad behavior.

Hood correctly approaches this as shock-therapy treatment for Tsotsi’s seeming senselessness. As he realizes he’s not long for this baby and plans its return, “Tsotsi” becomes a plea to retain parenthood’s passion and a powerful endorsement of compassion and amnesty in a culture where both are in short supply.