Not to sound provincial, but subtitled films can be arduous. One is essentially unable to concentrate on a filmâ€™s visual components because quick reading of the text at the bottom of the screen makes this all but impossible. At the same time, it is hard to read accurately and quickly when one is trying to watch the moving pictures. It can be a worst-of-both-worlds scenario wherein the subtitled film comes to resemble a cinematic futon (by day itâ€™s an uncomfortable couch, by night itâ€™s an unpleasant bed).
With its three African languages competing for the transcriberâ€™s attention, â€œTsotsiâ€ falls victim to this trap. That it is still immensely powerful is testament to its great writing, acting and direction.
In South Africa, where the story unfolds, â€œTsotsiâ€ is well known, since it is a work by the award-winning native playwright Athol Fugard. As scripted and directed by Gavin Hood, it should be no less popular, at least in its country of origin and perhaps in Europe. In the United States, â€œTsotsiâ€ â€” even though it won the Oscar for best foreign language film â€” will be a much tougher sell. There is a startlingly good performance in the lead role by newcomer (as far as I can tell) Presley Chweneyagae, but that wonâ€™t make this a stateside hit.
It opens with a number of shots establishing the bleakness of life in Soweto, a so-called â€œhomelandâ€ under apartheid just outside of white Johannesburg. As in the great â€œCity of Godâ€ (which was set in the slums of Rio de Janeiro), the crime and poverty become important characters on their own. The titular character (whose name translates as â€œthugâ€) is shown living in a tin shanty amidst puddles of filthy water, diseased dogs and barefoot, screaming children.
Tsotsi runs a crew of thieves who are as ruthlessly hyperviolent as any mafia family but far younger and less organized. Their comparative lack of opportunity leads them to target some pretty stupid and desperate sources of swag. This desperation leads to a crude carjacking and a murder, leaving behind one unharmed collateral victim: an infant in the stolen carâ€™s back seat. The entire plot of this film tilts on the possibility of redemption for a hardened criminal who now has an innocent baby over whom he must keep watch.
Thus is an age-old melodramatic plot rendered in the current politically correct parlance. If this same plot had been set in Detroit, it would have been on the evening news rather than in a theater on a big screen. If Hoodâ€™s direction is at times a bit obvious and heavy handed, that too is a paltry complaint.
Aside from a certain predictability, there is little not to like about this sobering vignette. Except for those damn subtitles, of course. I know, I know. This attitude condemns me to an under-realized appreciation of numerous classics from â€œThe Bicycle Thiefâ€ to â€œRashomonâ€ and beyond. Still, when I want to read, I generally pick up a book.