We live in such jaded and cynical times that it has become hard to believe in the possibility of somebody totally changing into a new person. Yet in a spiritual world, this happens more than we know. So many lives can be turned around — all it takes is someone to serve as a catalyst for the transformation. This is what happens in Tsotsi, a film set in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is directed by Gavin Hood and based on a novel by Athol Fugard.
To prepare yourself for this extraordinary emotional experience, you must allow yourself to be immersed in a cruel and capricious world of random violence and incredible poverty. It is also best to set aside any ideas you have about law and order, sociopaths, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Stay with the main character and his descent into darkness, and let yourself feel his loneliness, anger, and alienation. Feel also the great harm he brings into the lives of others by his cruel actions. Do not allow your personal ideals about what is good and what is bad to make you prejudge this story.
Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) is an angry young thief who enjoys gambling with his buddies and stealing from people on the rough streets of Johannesburg. One day he and three members of his gang spot a man with a roll of bills near the subway station. They board the crowded train and surround him. One member of the gang stabs the victim in the heart, and the group flees the scene with the money.
Boston (Mothusi Magano) is repulsed by the violence of the robbery and confronts Tsotsi. He wonders whether he has any "decency" at all. Tsotsi answers with his fists; he beats the conscience-stricken Boston senseless. He then runs out into the night and hijacks the car of a middle-class African woman (Mothusi Magano). When she tries to stop him, Tsotsi shoots her. Later he crashes the car after hearing a noise from the back seat and discovering a baby in a car seat.
Tsotsi puts the infant in a paper bag and takes the child back to his tin hut in shantytown. In flashbacks, we learn of the reason Tsotsi left home: his father ordering him out of the room where his mother was dying of AIDS, then breaking the back of his dog with two kicks. Tsotsi flees to a community of orphans and runaways living in empty drainage pipes outside the city. He learns to look out for himself and to take advantage of the weak and the distracted.
Realizing that he cannot properly feed and take care of the baby, Tsotsi spots a young woman with a child on her back and follows her home. Miriam (Terry Pheto) turns out to be a widow who makes a meager living sewing clothes and selling some mobiles she has created out of shards of glass. Tsotsi forces her at gunpoint to feed the infant. He learns a little about her life, and he is touched by her tenderness with the baby.
In one of the many poignant moments in the story, Tsotsi confronts a crippled man in a battered wheelchair in an isolated spot. He pulls a gun on the man and orders him to hand over the tin can full of money he'd begged from people at the subway station. Tsotsi learns that the man lost the use of his legs working in the mines when a beam fell and crushed them. He shares the story of losing his beloved dog and decides not to take the money. Something inside him has already changed. It is the start of a miraculous turnaround in his hard-pressed life.
"Tsotsi" means "thug." The protagonist has adopted it as a shield in a world that seems loveless and wayward at the same time. For those who have eyes to see, the story of the thief on the cross next to Jesus who repents is an indication that grace is operative to anyone, anywhere, and at any time — even the last possible moment of a life. We don't have the words to describe the experience of watching Tsotsi's slow journey to kindness and human decency after he lives with the baby. So let us instead share a quotation from Ellen Bass which says it all:
"There's a part of every living thing that wants to become itself: the tadpole into the frog, the chrysalis into the butterfly, a damaged human being into a whole one. That is spirituality."
Special DVD features include a commentary by screenwriter/director Gavin Hood; the original language track for Tsotsi-Taal; alternate endings; deleted scenes; "The Making of Tsotsi" featurette; the director's short film The Storekeeper; and a Zola music video.