March 6, 2006

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Totsi (R)
reviewed by Amy Diaz

A South African thug regains a tiny sliver of his humanity in the engaging Totsi, which recently won a best foreign film Oscar.

Totsi (Presley Chweneyagae) has earned his name, which means thug, through a young life full of brutality in the South African slums. The leader of a crew of small-time criminals, he spends his days with his boys looking for prey - one such unlucky man is someone with a bit of cash who Totsi's crew mugs and then murders in the subway. Totsi's brazen crimes show a disregard for life, both others' and his own (he never does anything to ensure he won't be recognized). On the prowl in a wealthy neighborhood one evening, Totsi carjacks an upper-class black woman who gets out of her car to open the gate to her home. She makes a sudden attempt to stop him, which causes Totsi to shoot her and drive off. It's only later that he realizes why she was so desperate - her infant son is in the back seat. After Totsi crashes the car, he ditches it, taking a few valuables including the baby, which he carries around in a shopping bag.

Taking the baby back to his shanty, Totsi, despite himself, seems taken with the boy and, as Totsi clumsily tries to care for the child, he finds himself thinking about his own difficult childhood. This sudden reacquaintance with emotion seems to get Totsi thinking about the course of his life and how - and if - he can change it.

Totsi makes good use of words (the characters speak the odd blend of languages and dialects which makes up the makeshift-sounding language of the South African slums - you can hear bits of French and English float by), both in terms of its spare but tight dialogue and the importance it places on the meaning of words such as "decency." Totsi, himself hiding his human name David behind the dehumanizing title of "thug," is almost without language and when he does truly communicate it's with startling rawness.

This verbal rawness matches the visual rawness of the movie. The harshness of the slum, the physical wounds on the people and the wounds on the landscape (the slums, the drain pipes where orphans live) give the movie a startling, almost documentary-like feel. It's these touches that keep our attention glued to the story and keep the movie from slipping into mushy feel-good sentiment. B+


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