Thursday, October 16, 2008

The godfather of the township

I generally recommend older movies, mostly because that's what I've seen more of, but there's an excellent newer movie on TV tomorrow: Tsotsi, airing on IFC at 9:30 AM and 3:05 PM ET.

Set in the South African townships, Tsotsi tells the story of a young thug (the word Tsotsi is his nickname, taken from one of the African languages' word for "thug"). He's in a particularly violent gang, as this is one of the few ways for many in the impoverished townships to make their living. Tsotsi has no compunctions about shooting people and leaving them to die, until one evening when he carjacks a woman. He shoots her, but finds that she's got an infant in a car seat in the back seat. And Tsotsi has an epiphany.

Tsotsi feels he can't let this baby die, and takes it back home with him, but he has absolutely no idea how to take care of a baby. In one particularly poignant scene, he follows a young mother around the narrow streets of the township, and when he gets to her home, he pulls out his gun on her and forces her to breast-feed "his" baby. Tsotsi eventually learns that the mother of the child survived the attack, giving him the idea that perhaps he should take the baby back to her, even if it means arrest for him.

Tsotsi is a very-well made movie, even if it's terribly sad in its portrayal of the grinding, unrelenting poverty of the South African townships. In fact, that poverty is much better displayed than anything Hollywood could ever have done in the studio era. It's not just the poverty, though; James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson had nothing on the violence of Tsotsi. As I was watching Tsotsi, I found myself thinking of the closest thing Hollywood ever had to such a movie, which would probably be the two versions of Three Godfathers, but Tsotsi is a much more realistic movie than any Hollywood treatment of the subject.

Tsotsi is by and large not in English, as those characters who live in the townships speak Xhosa or Zulu. This can be problematic if you're watching on a high-definition TV. IFC's showing is letterboxed, with the subtitles in the black area below the letterboxing. This means that if you try to watch on your HDTV in one of the modes that are designed for letterboxed movies (the ones that cut off the top and bottom of the image and blow the rest up to fit a 16:9 area), you'll lose some of the subtitles.

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