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Intense and moving, Gavin Hood's Oscar-nominated tale about a young South African gangster who gets an unexpected chance at redemption is literally a world apart from anything produced by Hollywood.


Based on the 1980 novel by Athol Fugard, Tsotsi--which translates roughly to ''thug''--covers six days in the life of its titular 19-year-old hood Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae). His past being a mystery to his friends and, in a way, to himself, Tsotsi leads a small gang of fellow lawbreakers in Johannesburg's chaotic, colorful, shanty-filled township. Tsotsi has been hardened by his violent, hardscrabble life; nothing really fazes him until a spur-of-the-moment carjacking in a wealthy part of town unexpectedly leaves him burdened with a three-month-old baby. Tsotsi's reaction to his new responsibility--and the feelings and memories the helpless baby triggers in his formerly closed-off heart--becomes his catalyst for change and growth, transforming a toughened street punk into a young man who feels hope for the first time in what seems like a lifetime.


Chweneyagae, who appears in nearly every scene of the film, is Tsotsi's heart and soul, and his performance more than lives up to the expectations implied by that description. His introduction as a cold, ruthless gangster is chilling--Chweneyagae makes his character's eyes as bleak and empty as the windswept field between the township and the rest of Johannesburg. His gradual softening is expressed in quick glances and brief smiles; his revelation of the vulnerable boy hiding inside the hardened criminal is a slow but steady process. Terry Pheto co-stars as beautiful, spirited single mother/seamstress Miriam, whom Tsotsi forcefully recruits into helping him care for the baby and eventually turns to for guidance and peace. Swathed in color from head to toe, Miriam is the antidote to Tsotsi's violent, desperate existence, and Pheto makes her a warm, compelling presence in the film.


Tsotsi--recently nominated in the Academy Award's Best Foreign Language category--is director Gavin Hood's first movie to play in the United States outside of a film festival and only his third feature to date. But if his work here is any indication, he has a long career ahead of him. One of the most striking things about the film is Hood's use of color in his cinematography; the heavy, sepia-toned atmosphere of the township conveys its inhabitants' oppressive, dusty existence in a glance. And the film's pulsing soundtrack (all local music) brings the movie's world to vibrant, primal life. Tsotsi isn't the first movie about a criminal who finds redemption, and it certainly won't be the last. But by telling this particular story, with its insider's look at a place and a way of life utterly unfamiliar to most American moviegoers, Hood (who also wrote the film) creates a wholly original film experience.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 1/2 stars.