At this point, appreciating Tsotsi is largely a matter of context. What does it say that this South African export won the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film when the similar but more shattering City of God didn't even place back in 2003? OK, so the Brazilian God received nods in three other categories a year later, but only a win is a win — and the evidence thus appears fairly firm that the Academy prefers its dark-skinned, underage gangsters to be at least partially redeemable. Basically, our esteemed voters would rather see juvenile hoodlums cradling tiny tykes instead of shooting them.
That's not a complete knock on Tsotsi, which recovers from a rather explicit early stumble to land some effective blows in the name of nonviolence. (It just lands them more softly, is all.) Arising from a shantytown on the outskirts of Johannesburg, a gang of youthful toughs roams the area's streets and train stations, robbing the unwary and even slicing them up like rump roasts when the spirit so moves. One of their number, the particularly sociopathic Tsotsi (the Swahili nickname means "thug"), gets more than he bargained for when he ventures into an affluent neighborhood to pull off a carjacking — and soon discovers that he's also laid inadvertent claim to a mewling infant that had been left in the back seat.
Silently resolving to keep his newfound surrogate parenthood a secret from his criminal cohorts, Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) makes some disastrous attempts at diaper-changing before he retains (by force, naturally) the caregiving skills of a young widow who's already rearing a wee one of her own. It's a profane parody of domesticity — the frightened madonna/hostage (Terry Pheto) suckling the stolen baby while Tsotsi looks on (not, we pray, lasciviously). At least we're spared the prospect of a Soweto-set Three Men and a Baby, though Tsotsi's actions at first have us scratching our heads. If he's really the delinquent among delinquents, as the movie's opening scenes would have us believe, it's far more likely he would have abandoned the kid by the side of the road — or even perhaps tried to sell it — than have given in to pangs of paternalism.
The reasons for his spark of conscience are revealed via flashbacks that show how the orphaned Tsotsi reached the big nowhere he now inhabits. Aside from robbing us of that initial bit of comprehension, the structure pays dramatic dividends. This is a real fall-and-rise (and fall again?) story, and one infused with audiovisual portent. Ominous lightning crackles over apocalyptic tableaus of carefully framed poverty, the atmosphere of desperation given a pulse by a terrific kwaito hip-hop soundtrack.
The AIDS epidemic becomes a dreadful motif: Safety billboards in the background of master shots constantly remind us of the disease's decimating effect on the local population. Whenever a character refers to another having died, everyone's default assumption is that immunological decline came first. (In a milieu so prone to gun- and knifeplay, that says a lot.) Yet Tsotsi never stops looking for a small silver lining of human potential — the possibility that even the worst reprobate will do the right thing, given a choice. It's easy to castigate that impulse as naive, or to point out that it's another notion Oscar voters love, but Tsotsi vindicates it with some stirring performances and well-aimed filmcraft. If countless lesser pictures hadn't required the word "redemption" to be banished forever from the critical vocabulary, this one would deserve it a good deal more than most.