Some people say I have a heart of stone. Maybe because I don’t like to emote in public. I’d rather hold in my feelings and let them fester until they erupt in bouts of depression or rage. So when a film makes me shed a tear, it’s a safe bet to say it’s got some power. Some films, like When Harry Met Sally or (in my foolish teenage years) Titanic, can chip at the stone and create a little hole and thus a few tears. Very few films manage to blast the rock away completely. This is one of them.
Tsotsi (Oscar winner for best foreign language film) is about a thug (‘Tsotsi’ literally means ‘thug’) who comes into the possession of a baby, which makes him question his approach to life. It’s a pretty simple story, but it doesn’t need any more than that. This film is all about the emotion. And right from the start it got me.
Now, when I talk about emotion I don’t mean ‘weepy weepy tear-jerker’. I mean it just made me feel. The opening mugging scene chilled me to my very core. It’s not that it’s particularly gory – I’m completely desensitised to violence on film anyway. It’s just the reality of a horrible act. And it’s the reality of the film that is strike one in the attack on my defences. This film deals with poverty – we’re talking little kids living in concrete cylinders. I’ve seen ‘poverty films’ before, and let’s be totally honest here. They make me shudder, but I can’t relate them to my perfect white middle-class world. We all watch them and see the dusty grounds and crappy little huts and think ‘god, that’s awful. But it’s not here.’ It’s so removed from our own existence that we may as well watch a sci-fi. But Tsotsi balances the shanty towns with towering cities and quiet little neighbourhoods. Places that we know. And then it cuts back to flats built on wobbly bricks with metal sheets for doors. Ouch.
Strike two is Presley Chweneyagae, who plays the title role. He could have gone through the whole film without saying a word and it would still have packed the same punch. We see just enough of his past to get why he is what he is, and the rest is explained through his eyes. Crikey, those eyes can convey everything he’s feeling as clearly as a big caption coming up on the screen. And as he stares mournfully at his new child companion, we start to see it through his own tortured childhood. That baby is one tubby, gurgling little cutie. And I’m not even a big fan of babies, especially babies in films. They could’ve gone down the ‘bumbling guy can’t figure out how to handle bawling baby, oh the hilarity’ route. But they didn’t. Sure, it’s amusing as he discovers the joys of a full nappy. But it’s not clown-like comedy. It’s touching. And, for me at least, it’s always darkened by this underlying fear, brought on by my own pre-conceptions of what happens in films about bad guys who aren’t bad at the core and try to do good. I won’t say whether I was right or not. But as the film built to its climax, my fear of what would happen grew and grew. The more I watched, the more I cared, the more I feared what was going to happen, and the more I knew that if it was to happen I was going to handle it badly. At the end I was experiencing so much emotion that my stomach was crumpling under the pressure (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t due to too much ice cream.) My tears mirrored Tsotsi’s. I couldn’t help it. And afterwards I was left with a wedge of emotion in my throat that was so big it took at least an hour to subside.
I know I’ve said previously that I’m not a big fan of weepy films (see Brokeback Mountain.) But this film wasn’t exactly ‘sad’. It was just… I can’t even put it into words. I will say that anyone who feels nothing after watching this film doesn’t just have a heart of stone – they’re soulless evil. Tsotsi makes the much sought-after 8.5. S’good.