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Spiritual Rebirth in the South African Slums

Critics have widely hailed Tsotsi as the greatest South African import since Charlize Theron, and it's not hard to understand why. It is a disquieting portrait of the brutality and poverty that exists, unchecked, in the townships of Johannesburg, where young thugs like Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) murder and steal to survive. Director Gavin Hood's film, adapted from an Athol Fugard novel of the same name, chronicles Tsotsi's spiritual rebirth after a messy heist leaves him saddled with a cherubic infant.

Make no mistake, this isn't the first tale of a wayward criminal rediscovering his humanity with the help of an innocent, and it won't be the last. But Tsotsi is more effective than most, thanks in no small part to newcomer Chweneyagae, whose ability to portray quiet desperation with a simple look or gesture is striking. In his feature-film debut, he plays a 19-year old with a deceptively calm demeanor that masks his considerable appetite for destruction.

Tsotsi fancies himself a loner, but he runs with a ragtag crew, more out of necessity than want. His colleagues are Boston (Mothusi Mogano), who dreams of becoming a teacher; Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), who attacks his role as a hired gun with disturbing exuberance; and Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), a simple, jovial sort who seems out of place in a den of murderous thieves. Together, they kill for money, and if they feel remorse, they hide it well.

That changes in the course of one fateful evening when Tsotsi steals a car, only to find a crying baby in the back seat. His first instinct is to abandon the boy, but he can't do it. So he tosses the toddler in a shopping bag, brings him back to his decrepit shack and gives him a hard, steel floor for a bed. And, just like that, the inevitable transformation begins.

Tsotsi's redemption may not be an overnight affair, but his taste for violence is soon sapped. With the help of Miriam (Terry Pheto), a shantytown mother with a heart of gold who raises the stolen infant as if he were her own, Tsotsi gradually rediscovers hope and humanity. Surprising? Hardly, but Hood's film should not be confused with slick, Hallmark-card entertainment.

Set in a society so ravaged by poverty and crime that the big-city police no longer care to intervene, it casts an unflinching eye on a killer whose sensibilities have been deadened by a nightmarish childhood. Tsotsi doesn't forgive his transgressions, but it does grant him the possibility of a brighter future.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars