Look into the eyes of Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) and you see something of what Shakespeare must have seen when he wrote about surviving tooth and nail. "Tsotsi" is South African slang for thug, and we get hints at how he got his name: growing up on his own, surviving by committing petty crime, graduating to violent robberies and always keeping those eyes gleaming with ferocity.

When we meet Tsotsi, he is in what might be the zenith and twilight of his career: his late teens or early 20s. He lives in a one-room shack, goes out with the collar of his leather jacket up and runs with his gang. One night, after savagely beating one of his friends, Tsotsi shoots a woman while stealing her car in an upscale neighborhood. Only after crashing does he realize why the woman fought so hard to stop the robbery. Her infant was in the back seat. Tsotsi runs off with the child, and contact with this helpless person stirs things inside him, forcing him to stop and examine life, if only for a second. "Tsotsi" shows that seconds can be momentous.

The movie was adapted from a novel by the South African writer Athol Fugard and is on the surface what one might expect from a high-profile winner of last year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film: a story of despair and redemption in a world set apart from our own. That is exactly what it might have become, or rather all it might have become, save for Gavin Hood's even, unobtrusive direction — for example, a series of flashbacks illuminating Tsotsi's childhood.

Hood is mostly getting out of the way for Chweneyagae, who deserves special commendation. It's one thing to look hard. Any American rapper can do that. It's another to be able to lapse into the human underneath, frightened and tired, desperate for a stroke of kindness. Maybe desperate to give one, too. S

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