Tsotsi (Hood, 2005) and Wolves in the Snow (Welterlin, 2002)

2-for-1 with films from South Africa and France.  Starting off with Gavin Hood (director of the unbelievably dreadful X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and Tsotsi.  I’m of the opinion – and I know I’m not alone here – that Tsotsi was awarded an Academy Award as belated apology for the similarly themed and far superior City of God years earlier, which probably should have won the award.

Tsotsi is a thug.  He’s an orphan and he’s very young.  He shoots a woman, stealing her car…and accidentally her baby.  With no knowledge of how to care for the child he finds a local woman to help him out, all the while staying on the run from the law.

Tsotsi has some good things going for it.  Some of the performances, especially that of the titular character, played by Presley Chweneyagae and the woman with whom he interacts, Miriam (Terry Pheto) combine a very realistic and touching sense of pathos and, in Tsotsi’s case, violence.  There’s also an interesting use of Kwaito rap music as representative of a certain type of place – the Kwaito generally plays in and around violent events, ultimately becoming representative of the slums of Johannesburg until Hood makes a nice switcheroo and blends the music into a portrayal of the suburbs towards the end.

There’s also a really beautiful, and at times heartbreaking sense of place here.  Hood doesn’t really flinch from showing the ghettos, complete with a (first half) pervasive sense of AIDS, homeless, and orphans.

The main problem with Tsotsi, based on a 1970s-set novel by Athol Fugard, is that it’s overproduced and that Hood’s direction is predictable and boring.  The lighting here, while “technically” pretty, is too glossy.  Moonlight is a blue wash, and beams of too-well-placed light flash into Tsotsi’s shack.  The camera, frequently moving, uses standard, but uninteresting film language to telegraph emotion in a Spielberg-at-his-worst kind of way: plenty of dolly-ins to close-up and blocking that basically consists of enter-talk-sit-talk-stand-leave.

Ultimately, the mise-en-scene of the film doesn’t match what the rugged content is trying to say.  Everything is lain out on a nice plate for us, and all ambiguity of action and emotion comes to a very neat close in the climactic scene.  Though (as demonstrated on the DVD extras) there is some bit of plot left up in the air in the final few minutes, the redemptive angle, with Africa’s “The Voice” pounding through on the soundtrack, feels hackneyed, too fast, and cheap.  I like my characters to struggle to redeem themselves, to not undergo drastic changes in the blink of an eye, and to present said redemption in a modest way.  Tsotsi fails on all of these levels.

I checked out Welterlin’s Wolves in the Snow for three main reasons: 1) I’ve never seen one of his films (which should come as no surprise, since this is his only feature), 2) I quite like Marie-Josée Croze, and 3) the cover looked interesting.  Yes, marketing matters.  The image is below.

The monochrome look – including the lettering – alongside the unclear positioning and relationship of the figures is what got me.  Plus, it’s a great title.

Ostensibly a twisting gangster flick, Wolves in the Snow follows Lucie (Croze) who discovers that her husband is cheating on her and kills him.  The problem: he was in for a lot of money to a lot of nasty people.

Wolves in the Snow starts strong and fast.  It drops you right into the middle of a scene – a technique I love, also demonstrated in the underrated Love Crime from last year – and makes you play catch up for the first 15 minutes.  Immediately after the murder, the imminent loose ends that must be tied up – body disposal, for example – are fun and suspenseful.

Even the introduction of Hank Azaria lookalike Romano Orzari playing the lethal gangster Marco, and his partner and antagonist (and eventually lover and protector of Croze) Ruben (Jean-Philippe Écoffey) don’t turn things for the worst right away, despite almost immediately beginning to fall into The Professional-type relationship formulas.

One of the problems with Wolves in the Snow is that director Welterlin doesn’t really know how to control pacing.  Scenes burst in and out, slow to a crawl at times and dance around without any rhythm.  The camera, fairly mobile, doesn’t help as it frequently seems to move just to do so, and doesn’t really establish itself in any particular way or ways.

The last act of the film, where everything has gone to hell and things twist and turn, becomes overly melodramatic, including a Conformist-rip-off forest scene at the end, that holds none of the weight of its predecessor though striving for meaning.  Ultimately Wolves in the Snow comes up empty, caught somewhere between A Simple Plan irony and gangster-with-a-heart-of-gold histrionics.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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