A while back in these pages, I was dumping on a movie (“The Last King Of Scotland”) for giving us the same-old white man’s view of Africa. What we really needed, I wrote, was an African view of Africa, something like an African “City of God,” which gave an insider’s look at life and crime in Rio’s favelas.

Well, “Blood Diamond,” besides being a decent enough adventure movie, sure didn’t change the old paradigm, but this month sees a South African film called “Tsotsi” on release, and it promises a local take on contemporary urban Africa.

With its tale of a gang of young thugs stealing and killing to survive amid shantytown squalor, the film certainly promised to be an African “City of God.” The film’s execution, however, is rather less thrilling. It has nothing like the visual verve and riveting storytelling that made Fernando Melles’ “City Of God” such a memorable experience. That film found compelling characters and stories in the reality it depicted, but “Tsotsi” feels far less real, and more like a liberal “issue” film set on showing that even the hardest criminals can be rehabilitated through the “wuv of a widdle boo-boo baby.”

Director Gavin Hood
Run Time 95 minutes
Language Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, English
Opens Now showing (May 4, 2007)

This mush-minded approach is no doubt what earned the film an Oscar for best foreign language film (beating out the astoundingly imaginative “Pan’s Labyrinth”), since the Academy seems to award at least half its Oscars for politically correct filmmaking these days.

Set in the streets of Johannesburg’s Soweto neighborhood, a slum enshrouded in the haze of pollution, “Tsotsi” follows a gang of young street predators through a typical day of stealing to survive. The group is led by Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae), a cold-eyed, baby-faced killer in a hoodie. Together with his mates Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), a dim-witted heavy, Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), a sadistic psychotic, and Boston (Mothhusi Magano), a former teacher who thinks too much, Tsotsi scours Johannesburg’s central rail station looking for easy marks.

After knifing a man on the subway to relieve him of his payroll, the boys retire to a bar to enjoy their profits. Boston, after a few drinks too many, starts to berate Tsotsi, saying that he’s gone too far, and that he himself wants no part of murder. Tsotsi sits in a stone-faced silence, until he loses it when Boston asks him about his father; he then proceeds to savagely beat his friend to a pulp. He leaves the bar in a rage, and makes his way alone to a wealthy suburb where he finds himself a nice opportunity to carjack a vehicle.

As he prepares to drive off, the woman who owns the vehicle frantically tries to stop him; Tsotsi coldly — and symbolically — shoots her in the belly. He doesn’t get far, though, before he realizes that he has another passenger — the woman’s baby is still strapped in the back seat.

Tsotsi abandons the car, and his initial instinct is to flee. Second thoughts kick in, however, and he bundles up the infant and takes him back to his ramshackle home. There he encounters all sorts of problems with how to feed the baby and make it stop crying. This leads Tsotsi to stalk an attractive single mother, Miriam (Terry Pheto), and force her to breast-feed the baby at gunpoint. Meanwhile, the police launch a manhunt to find the baby-thief.

The problem with all this is how hopelessly predictable the plotting is. From the moment Tsotsi picks up the infant, there is never any doubt that his conscience will kick in and he’ll do the right thing and return the baby. It’s kind of like boarding a train on the Yamanote line at 8 a.m. on a weekday and wondering if it will be crowded.

Director Gavin Hood manages to draw precious little suspense or drama from the situation, and horribly overdoes the ending, trying to coax a few drops of drama from a situation where it’s a foregone conclusion. As for insight, it’s that the responsibility of parenthood can tame a man considerably, and that even the most hardened gangster has a kernel of humanity buried deep in his soul, if only he can connect to it. Messages, no doubt, that many wish to hear, but “Tsotsi” makes them seem all too pat and predictable. Feel-good cinema at its lamest.

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