“Tsotsi” and “The Proposition”
by Bill Gallagher
A friend of mine who has dabbled with online dating likes to figure out what kind of
woman he’s dealing with by asking her to name one subtitled movie she has seen.
Just one. “And if it’s ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ that’s fine,” he says.
Foreign films as litmus test? Why not?
Now I imagine some women would welcome such a question. Others might delete him as
quickly as you can say “Y tu mamá también.”
There are two types of people who like movies: those who don’t mind reading what
characters are saying, and those who figure movies are for watching, not reading.
Which brings me to the Portland International Film Festival (PIFF). Every February
that’s where you’ll find those who have no phobia about foreign films. In fact, some
attendees may sniff that the only films worth seeing are foreign films. Of course, that
view is not only snobbish to a ridiculous extreme, it’s stupid. As far as I’m concerned,
movies are movies and the country of origin matters little.
This year’s 29th
annual PIFF featured 134 films from 36 countries. A handful of these
movies will eventually show up at your local theater. The rest will go back to where they
came from, retrievable for viewing only if you patronize an online rental service such as
I’ve been attending the PIFF for the last few years, making it a point to catch half a dozen
or so films. I started bringing my teenage son along last year, and even though he barely
made it through a plodding German movie about a widowed accordion player (“Schultze
Gets the Blues”) he was eager to return this year. We both marvel at the diverse
demographics at each screening. At one, he sat next to a woman who could have been his
mom and who, he noted, was on her third screening of the day. I sat next to a woman who
could have been my mom who reminisced about the days when the only place you could
see foreign films in Portland was at the Guild Theatre.
The two films I took in at this year’s PIFF were “Tsotsi,” a South African film nominated
for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award (it opens any day here in Portland), and “The
Proposition,” an exceedingly violent Australian film (no subtitles) that opens in New
York in May, and may or may not ever be screened here.
Though “Tsotsi” is based in present-day South Africa and “The Proposition” in the
Australian outback in the 1880s, both deal with criminals who have no empathy for their
victims. The sociopath protagonists are superpredators. “Tsotsi” has an agenda—yes, the
teenage thug, for whom the movie is titled, is a hardened criminal, but consider his upbringing. “The Proposition” just sets out to remind us that life can be brutish. That
such a lack of regard for human life dominates two films set 120 years apart is just a little
discouraging when you think about it.
“Tsotsi” follows a teenage gang leader loner-type (Presley Chweneyagae) through the
Johannesburg ghetto as he terrorizes friends and strangers alike. He drinks and throws
dice but can’t add the numbers he rolls. After beating one of his homeboys, he ends up
carjacking the BMW of a wealthy black woman who lives on the other side of the tracks
where homes are spacious and gated. It turns out there’s a baby boy in the back seat.
Rather than abandon baby boy and Beemer, for some reason he decides to take the infant
to his shack. His life has been changed. It’s time to make some amends. But give the
baby back? No way. He finds a woman in the ghetto whom he forces to feed the baby.
Meanwhile a couple of cops are under heavy pressure to find the child. It’s intriguing to
see the black parents who are victims of the abduction ordering around a white detective.
That’s about it as far as the plot goes. Obviously, he’s not cut out for fatherhood. And
keeping the baby’s presence under wraps in the township is impossible. So “Tsotsi” is
driven by the question of whether the baby can be the father to the man-child, so to
speak. In other words, whether this kind of surrogate fatherhood leads to reform and
“Tsotsi” is moving at times, especially in the scenes involving the mother he forces to
feed the baby and the mother whose child he has stolen. I think that’s the point: that if
he’d not lost his own mother when he was young, he wouldn’t be such a heartless thug.
There’s also a nice scene with a cripple Tsotsi victimizes at the subway station. The teen
asks him how he could possibly want to keep living. The wheelchair-bound beggar tells
him, “Because I like the way the sun feels on my face.”
And it’s beautifully shot. The contrast between the dusty squalor of the township and the
shining city beyond the desolate brownfields is dazzling. Director/writer Gavin Hood has
a future in Hollywood if he wants it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see his career arc
following that of Fernando Meirelles, the Brazilian director of “City of God” who landed
the job directing “Constant Gardener” after his success with a gritty ghetto crime drama.
“The Proposition” is uncompromising in the way it depicts the mayhem in the outback as
the conflicted British Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) tries to impose order on a small
outpost of the Empire. “I will civilize this place,” he says to anyone who will listen. But
he’s dealing with a gang of Irish outlaws who had apparently wreaked unspeakable havoc
on a family of settlers. Think about the kind of savagery Indians were accused of in
American westerns, and you’ve got a sense of what’s going on here. Only it’s really
oblique. There’s a minimalist approach to storytelling here. Combined with difficulty
understanding some of the dialogue (remember, no subtitles), we’re left with an
impressionistic, avant garde Western that Sam Peckinpah could have directed if he had
kept moving away from the linear narrative approach to making movies.
The screenplay was written by an Australian musician named Nick Cave. Worth noting is
that when he performed a ballad at a funeral for another Aussie rocker who’d hanged
himself (Michael Hutchence of INXS), a fan threw himself from the upper balcony. Cave
once said of songwriting, “I want to write songs that are so sad, the kind of sad where you
take someone’s little finger and break it in three places.” The dude is dark.
His enabler is Director John Hillcoat, who rivals Mel Gibson when it comes to rubbing
our noses in bloody violence. The plot premise is the proposition that Charlie Burns (Guy
Pearce), a captured Irish outlaw, will see his younger, simple-minded brother Mike
(Richard Wilson) hanged unless he brings his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston) back
to Captain Stanley. Now Arthur is a real piece of work. A poet, a deep thinker, a man
loyal to family, and as cold-blooded a killer as you’ll see in a movie.
The idea that endures from “The Proposition” and survives the violence is that Captain
Stanley’s efforts to “civilize” the place involve creative justice. He’s willing to let one
perp go to stop a more dangerous perp. The locals aren’t buying it though and prefer
revenge over pragmatism. There’s a scene when the younger brother is to be flogged 100
times. As the count reaches 38, the flogger has to squeeze the blood out of the instrument
of torture, as you would wring dirty water out of a mop. The locals have seen enough.
Nice shorthand from the director for the squeamishness of the civilized when it comes to
mimicking the excesses of human beasts.
“The Proposition” is not for everyone because of the violence. The violence in “Tsotsi” is
easier to take, so the audience maintains at least a scrap of sympathy for the devil. That
both were featured here in February makes me really glad we’ve got the Portland
International Film Festival.
Bill Gallagher is the News Director of AM 860–KPAM, the Talk Station, and he writes
the monthly Movie Column for BrainstormNW.
BrainstormNW - March 2006