movie spoiler alert. If you have not seen "Tsotsi", consider seeing the
film before reading further.
Murtagh has spent 20 years as an Intensive Care Unit physician at a major Southeast
first, the South African film "Tsotsi", looks like re-shoot of the
Brazilian masterpiece, the "City of God." The City of God, in turn, is
"The Godfather" on speed. It reminded me of Goodfellows, Sopranos, and
Scarface. Horrible circumstances, leading to unavoidable crime, leading to
But then I realized. "Tsotsi" is the answer to all of these films, not the
Tsotsi, like "City of God," shows ruthless killers born to crushing
poverty. Children are abandoned, growing up in pipes and in garbage dumps. No hope
exists, so escalating butchery builds to a fevered pitch of kinetic violence until a
final orgy of death appears inevitable.
Except in "Tsotsi," where the bath of blood is stopped, and the gangland
leader reforms, transformed by the innocence of a child. The hardened criminal
surrenders himself, arms spread wide and high, as if he were forming a kind of cross,
tears of remorse and redemption streaming down his cheeks. The power of the heart and
his empathy for a helpless child reformed even one of the most hardened killers in
Free will entering into an International gangland story is shocking and exhilarating.
In all other mobster movie in memory, the Killers, Godfathers and Macbeths were pawns
of fate. Fate tricks each gangster-leader into believing he is supremely
powerful and wise, an Uberman above the laws of good or evil, the Master of the
Universe, holding all power and all the puppet strings. But ultimately, each realized
he was deluded. In fact, each supposed villain puppet master was in fact a himself
only a puppet, dangling ironically on the strings of the corrupt violent system.
Those that lived by the gun die by the gun, and those who put heads on pikes end up
with their own head on a pike.
Macbeth and Brutus showed how conditions turn good men into villains, as surely as
fate turned Darth Vader from the good side to the evil side of the force. But for the
grace of God, in the theme of these stories, any of us could be born or made into
Vito Corleone's criminal fate appeared sealed as he stepped as an orphan refugee
child, into the shadow of the statute of liberty, stripped of his name, and
thrown friendless into quarantine. Later, fate made his son Michael reluctantly into
the next criminal genius. Neither father or son apologized, as crime appeared as the
least bad choice open. Even the police were conniving with rival gangs to finish both
Corleones off. Who could the Corleones have turned, even if they wanted to go
straight? Not the police. Not the media. Not the church.
"The woman made me do it," was Adam's excuse. "The serpent made me do
it" Eve replied. "I am not my brother's keeper," Cain continued.
"The weird sisters made me," continued Macbeth. Venus "forced"
Paris abduct Helen, so Agemmenon murdered daughter Iphigenia, to obtain good winds so
to sack Troy. The Greeks rumbled with the Trojans, the Sharks with the Jets. And so
on, and so on, and so on.
But Tsotsi breaks this mold. Beginning as a killer more heartless than Luca Brasi, Tsotsi
discovers his heart is bigger than violence. Unlike any other mob movie character,
(possible excepting Samuel Jackson's "Pulp Fiction" character), Tsotsi
actually breaks through his environment, and takes responsibility, to find
His change of heart changes others. Almost every character in "Tsotsi"
grows more empathetic from the beginning to the end of the film. The rich woman that
Tsotsi shoots in the carjacking/abduction grows from demanding vengeance into a more
caring empathetic mother. Her hard husband likewise appears to soften after Tsotsi
unexpectedly spares his life. Several of Tsotsi's friends and neighbors show
surprising inner character. Even brutal police appear to develop a hint of empathy.
Though, it is clear that Tsotsi accepts he will soon suffer justly for his crime.
At the end of the film, the stark fact of brutalizing poverty remains. The chasm
between powerful and poor remains. The impossibility of real justice in world
ghettos remains. AIDs remains. But even so, there is hope.
Did Tsotsi manage to transform through true free will, or did the infant trigger a
reforming response Tsotsi had no choice but obey? Did Tsotsi really break free of
puppet strings, or is he just controlled by new, less visible puppet strings? Did
some empathy gene or chemical trigger? Was it the hand of God?
Whether our fates are governed by the stars, or by ourselves, or if there is more
than is dreamt of in our philosophies, if this is a brave new world, if we are the
stuff of dreams, infinite and noble in reason, or whether we are a base nature on
whom nurture can never stick, we do not know. We do know at present that the struggle
for existence is becoming even more nasty, brutish and short, and the rule of law,
even here in America, is breaking down.
Conditions breeding global "Cities of God" exponentially increase with
world population and depleting resources. This is expected to result in massive
increases in poverty, hunger and cold, and in gang struggles for existence.
In this darkness, basic humanity appears in Tsotsi. Innocence still matters, even to
the profoundly guilty. By accepting his responsibility despite his environment,
Tsotsi shows the rest of us that we too will have the possibility of redemption, even
if the darkness of global gangs and ghettos descend on us.