Tsotsi, the 2006 Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Picture, is a marvelously directed, skillfully acted, and sumptuously shot film about nihilism and hope amidst abject squalor. It's also as contrived and hackneyed as any formulaic tripe coming out of mainstream Hollywood.
Set in the hopeless slums outside of Johannesburg, Tsotsi is shot in gorgeous, dusty, gold tones that provide a rich cinematic contrast to the gritty, violent reality of the shantytown. Life here, as we've learned from similar films like City of God, is hardly suitable for a stray mongrel—much less the thousands of people who survive in dismal, starving violence. The pulsing soundtrack of African "Kwaito" hiphop underscores the fast-paced aggression of life here, while hinting at effects of cultural, if not economic, globalization.
At the beginning of the film, Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) is just another desperate teen on the filthy streets of the slum; neither schools nor role models exist here, so children grow up by their own unstructured means, creating a Lord of the Flies lawlessness and power struggle. Tsotsi is the ringleader of a small gang of street kids, and they have zero regard for human life: Violence and killing mean less to them than a pair of used shoes.
But one night Tsotsi carjacks a BMW, unwittingly taking along the infant that's been left inside. Tsotsi sees the child as a mere possession, and decides to keep it; what follows are some devastating scenes in which Tsotsi tries to care for the newborn, but shortly thereafter, the film takes a turn for the worse.
Imagine how Disney or Paramount or Warner Bros. would finish a movie wherein a cold, hard thug kidnapped a baby by accident, and decided to hold on to the little tyke for a while. Well, that's exactly the route Tsotsi takes. By the end of the film, you realize that the screenplay has taken you directly from Point A to Point B, with no zigzags, switchbacks, or anything but Character Development 101. It's bad enough when crummy movies fall prey to clichéd storylines, but Tsotsi deserves so much more.