One way to die slowly in South Africa is AIDS. Another way is to be Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae), a young thug from a township of shotgun shacks who commits his crimes in nearby Johannesburg. We meet him and his three droogs as they surround a flush fellow on a crowded subway and reach into his pocket for his wad of cash. The man resists, so Tsotsi fleetly guts him with a knife -- the first of several bad decisions he'll make this week.
Writer/director Gavin Hood's Tsotsi is both a literal story of a young man's dissipating life and a disturbing metaphor for the apartheid that created him. It's a lean, hard, layered drama, and if it feels somewhat like a morality play, that's probably because it's based on a novel by the great black South African playwright Athol Fugard. (Hood is South African and white.)
Tsotsi's life unravels during six days in a series of episodes in which he seems to form a suicide pact with himself. He holds up a well-off woman for her car, shoots her when she argues, and finds her baby in the back seat after he drives away. He tries to care for the boy while continuing his crime spree and arguing with his gang. His friend Boston, whom everyone calls Teacher Man because of his vocabulary, tells Tsotsi that killing the man on the train lacked "decency." The word becomes the mantra of his scolding, and Tsotsi takes his verbal punishment for a while, then finally gets angry and beats Boston senseless.
As Tsotsi plunges to his climax of desperation, we see the way he and his kind live, in stark townships that feel at times almost eerily surreal. In flashback we learn that Tsotsi was once named David, and that his mother died of AIDS. He wants to hold her hand on her deathbed, but his sadistic father orders him out of the room. Then, with two swift kicks, his father breaks the back of David's beloved pet dog.
Tsotsi comes from this horror, so it's no wonder he's a brutalist; it's also no wonder he cares so much for the baby boy he unwittingly kidnapped. Now he's being confronted with his long-absent humanity by Teacher Man, and by an old man in a wheelchair, and by the young mother in his township whom he persuades -- at gunpoint, of course -- to nurse the hungry child.
The acting in Tsotsi is delicate and deep, and every tortured moment of the film resonates with difficult meaning. South Africa is a free democracy now. But how can the country even begin to solve the almost immutable problems that have grown from the demoralizing choices of its colonial masters? In the family of the kidnapped child, we see a prospering black upper-middle class. But in Tsotsi, and his legions, we see the other, bigger, more important South Africa. In Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans, with subtitles.