Tsotsi: PICK


The Keys of the Kingdom: PICK



Content advisory:

Tsotsi: Harsh criminal milieu including brutal violence and deadly menace; obscene and profane language; disturbing treatment of an infant; discreet depictions of breastfeeding. Partially subtitled. Mature viewing. The Keys of the Kingdom: Some religious themes calling for discernment; some war-related footage. Might be okay family viewing.

He is a young predator, a feral youth with a cold, blank stare prowling the Johannesburg area streets with his pack. The titular antihero of writer-director Gavin Hood’s Oscar-winning Tsotsi, new on DVD, seems almost entirely severed from human values. His moral apathy rattles his conscience-stricken follower Boston. “Decency, Tsosti,” Boston harangues. “Do you know the word?”

Tsotsi may not be as wicked as Don Corleone, but at least Corleone abided by a code of honor. Tsotsi’s world is defined only by basic and primal categories: needs, wants, opportunities, obstacles, hazards. Yet there are primal impulses that are other-centered rather than self-centered. Tsotsi may have little or no concept of pity or compassion, but deep in the mammalian brain is a trigger that will not allow any of us to be indifferent to the sound of a baby crying.

What we do about it is another story. Babies have been abandoned or smothered by troubled mothers desperate to escape their child’s cries. When Tsotsi discovers a defenseless baby in the back of a stolen car, it’s easy to imagine him doing something dreadful. In a way, he does — though not quite in the way we fear. Tsotsi’s efforts to care for the baby are nearly as disturbing as his crimes, and his trial-and-error discoveries about responsibility and consequences include nearly unwatchable moments. Hood plots a credible learning curve for Tsotsi, walking a razor’s edge between hope and tragedy.

Has Tsotsi gone too far to turn around? The film walks the line right up to the climax, culminating in a final shot of transcendent rightness. It’s an ending that one may dare to hope might also be some sort of beginning.

Based on the best-selling novel by A.J. Cronin, The Keys of the Kingdom, also new on DVD, looks back on a life of heroic priestly service unmarked by outward success, worldly recognition or ecclesiastical honor. At the same time, the story celebrates its hero as an idiosyncratic priest, Father Francis Chisholm (Gregory Peck), who held odd, even problematic views on religion and whose lifelong best friend (Roddy McDowall) was a confirmed atheist.

Like his protagonist, novelist Cronin was a Scots Catholic with a Catholic father and a Protestant mother. His book is dedicated to a friend who was a longtime missionary to China. Cronin himself had been a medical doctor (the same profession as Father Chisholm’s atheist friend Mitchell).

Were Cronin’s own beliefs closer to those of his missionary protagonist or of the missionary’s doctor friend? Either way, the novel suggests that its author was less than devout, honoring the Church as “our mother” while suggesting that “perhaps there are other mothers” even in non-Christian religions such as Confucianism.

Yet the filmmakers, not wanting to offend Christian viewers, make Father Chisholm’s views less problematic in the film. At the same time, conscious of their predominantly Protestant audience, the filmmakers minimize the priest’s specifically Catholic identity; we never see or hear of him celebrating Mass or any other sacrament (apart from one reference to confession).

The resulting picture is an edifying celebration of recognizably Christian virtue in an imperfect hero with a Roman collar — perhaps an eye-opening picture for American audiences in 1944, and one still worth revisiting today.