Stone cold

By and

“Tsotsi”Miramax FilmsDirected by Gavin HoodScreenplay by Gavin Hood, based on the novel by Athol FugardStarring: Presley Chweneyagae, Mothusi Magano, Terry Pheto, Rapulana Seiphemo, Zenzo Ngqobe and Thembi NyandeniRated R/94 minutesOpened March 31, 2006Four out of four stars

He stares?emotionless and cold. He and his gang get on a train, silently stab a middle-aged man to death, take his money and walk off the train, their crime unnoticed.

They go to a bar, they argue about the night’s activities, a friend of his (Mothusi Magano) screams at him?and still he just stares. He’s just a kid-can’t be more than 19 or 20-but in the slums of Johannesburg, South Africa, where some families live inside old metal pipes in the middle of nowhere, he has grown into the kind of young man who takes what he wants and needs by force.

It’s right there in his name-he is known only as Tsotsi, meaning “thug” in South-African slang.

We see an armed and dangerous gangster, heartless. He has no regard for life or property. In short, we see a stone-cold sociopath-all this encapsulated in that piercing stare.

And then the film looks closer. And as it does so, we realize that his actions are not drawn from a cool, cold-blooded confidence-instead, fear is his impetus. He’s a terrified kid and nothing more. We see it in his eyes-the panic, the uncertainty-when he beats up his best friend and suddenly runs away. We see it when he treks to an affluent neighborhood, steals a woman’s Mercedes and, as she tries to stop him, shoots her down. And we see it when he realizes he has inadvertently kidnapped the woman’s infant child, who will change the course of his life over the next few days.

The title character of “Tsotsi”-this year’s Oscar winner for Foreign-Language Film-is not an easy one to redeem. A product of poverty and crime, he has become a hardened criminal in just a few years, but he is not who we believe we see in the film’s first few scenes.

Screenwriter/director Gavin Hood examines his subject with complexity and does let him-or the audience-off the hook. Tsotsi keeps the baby-whom he names David-in a paper grocery bag under his bed. When he realizes he can’t feed him, he takes a local new mother by force and makes her breast-feed him.

And no, despite his newfound child, he doesn’t all of a sudden change his lifestyle-that would be too easy.

Some will inevitably complain that the film’s plot function-redeeming a killer with something as simple and obvious as a baby-is emotionally manipulative and all too convenient. But such an argument is shortsighted and misses the point.

Filmmakers have been humanizing killers for decades, so this is not anything new; however, Tsotsi’s journey and redemption are not the stuff of typical melodrama.

First-time actor Presley Chweneyagae creates a multifaceted character-a fascinating person who is at one moment ruthless and cold and the next frightened and unsure.

Over the last several years, we have seen growing cinematic revolutions from South America and Mexico. Perhaps, with a growing number of movies that have taken the international stage by storm, the countries of Africa will be next. If “Tsotsi” is any indication, we can expect great things.