Hidden Flick: Near Life Experiences

And it is the lead character, the title figure, Tsotsi, literally ‘thug’, as translated from Tsotsitall into English, that we are concerned with here. Tsotsi has hidden his humanity, his selflessness, and his soul to just get by on a daily basis. If anything, his actions telegraph the actions of many during the events of the early and mid 21st century, as one fights for survival on a planet which will show no remorse to the teeming hordes of humans who forgot the most essential truth of all: you can’t kill your mother, and continue to survive for very long. ‘got milk?’ will haunt your every feeble step. With resources dwindling, and the population expanding exponentially, one will be forced to make due on the streets—if there are any left—and fight for every morsel, every crumb, and every concrete need in order to continue to…wait for it…breathe in and breathe out.

Ahhh…but we’ve gone on some sort of post-Al Gore, post-environmental trip here. The Meaning of Life is to breathe in and out? What happened to our little existential adventures where one is truly seeking a new way to live? What happens when that need to find out more and more isn’t even part of the equation, nor does it matter at all? So we turn to this harsh and violent South African celluloid gem for a clue or two, and find that what really matters, what really lays at the heart of this film is the title character performance by the actor Presley Chwenejagae. Tsotsi begins the film as a man barely living above the level of complete poverty. He’s the leader of a gang, and shows zero compassion, or remorse, for any of his actions. One is horrified by his lack of goals and depraved existence. One has no way to relate to his choices. Should he die? When? Why?

Yes, his life is a brutal existence, to be sure, and for those of us lucky enough to watch films, to draw our eyes away from the godawful wretchedness of current so-called cinematic innovations with its overblown visual effects tied to weak human interest screenplays, we are not often shown such an extreme version of life that appears so foreign. And ‘foreign’ is a good word here because the simple fact that a baby short-circuits the anger within the beast of Tsotsi, reminds the viewer that we run far and wide along the streets of our existence, but we must always return home at some point, and view the shattered remains of the mirror, and the broken pieces of what is left behind.

In Tsotsi, one truly finds the pearl, and sees how a man rooted in every aspect of an evil existence can get another chance, can find a way to save his soul, and return to whence he came, a positive force of energy, neither detracting, nor destroying that which he creates. Chewnejagae’s character is switchblade smart. But he is also wicked, bitter, mean-spirited and a homicidal maniac thinking only of himself—a monster in modern clothes, and, ultimately, a beautiful man soaring on the back of an angel’s wings he never knew existed as he remembers his own tortured and harsh childhood on his path to redemption.

Indeed, in this sublime South African film, one sees an actor portraying a character redeeming himself in a performance which transcends a theatre experience, or at home in front of a rectangular screen, feeding the mind with visual imagery. Like most great films, the story transcends art and documents life, itself.

Randy Ray

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