Every frame of the beautiful "Man Push Cart" expresses writer-director Ramin Bahrani's compassion for a street vendor (Ahmad Razvi), who before sunrise leaves his tiny Brooklyn apartment and heads for a warehouse from which he will pull his large, shiny cart blocks to a corner in midtown Manhattan and set up for business, selling coffee, tea, doughnuts and bagels to passersby.
A trim, bearded Pakistani immigrant in his 30s, Ahmad is a figure of resolute dignity, and Bahrani immerses the viewer in the rituals and rhythms of Ahmad's daily existence, solitary and full of drudgery. Bahrani is intent on making his audience take notice of an individual so easily overlooked as to be all but invisible, and only gradually -- and then elliptically -- does he reveal aspects of Ahmad's personal life.
Ahmad is driven to get ahead so that he can afford to have his small son come and live with him. The boy lives with his late wife's parents, who blame Ahmad for their daughter's death and claim her son is now theirs. That the boy is indifferent to his father does not deter Ahmad's pursuit of his dream.
A pair of encounters lifts Ahmad's spirits. One of his customers, Mohammad (Charles Daniel Sandoval), recognizes Ahmad not only as a fellow Pakistani but also as a onetime rock star. (It would seem that Ahmad gave up his singing career in order to please his wife and bring her to America to join her parents.) A wealthy blowhard, Mohammad talks about getting Ahmad a comeback concert; in the meantime, Ahmad is grateful just to get the chance to make some extra money painting the man's apartment.
Then Ahmad discovers that a lovely young woman, Noemi (Leticia Dolera), has started working at a newsstand near his corner. Their attraction is mutual, but Noemi is skittish, likely to reconcile with her boyfriend back in Spain. Mohammad and Noemi ultimately serve to underline the absoluteness of Ahmad's marginalization.
Bahrani, a North Carolinian of Iranian descent, has said that principal among his many influences is Albert Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus," and Ahmad's life does indeed seem to be a process of repeatedly rolling a rock up an incline only to see it roll down over and over, endlessly.
Like Sisyphus, Ahmad seems cruelly trapped yet never gives up. He represents not only hard-pressed Southeast Asian immigrants and their plight but also everyone else eking out a living on the street corners of cities the world over.
A mix of grit and grandeur, the New York captured by impeccable cinematographer Michael Simmonds becomes integral to Ahmad's story and is not just backdrop. "Man Push Cart," largely the work of newcomers and near-newcomers, is a remarkably disciplined, subtle film that avoids striking a "triumph of the human spirit" note or any other cliche. Bahrani drew much from Razvi's one-year experience as a pushcart man himself, and some sequences were inspired by Robert Bresson's "Pickpocket." Indeed, it's by no means an exaggeration to describe this quietly powerful film as Bressonian.
`Man Push Cart'
MPAA rating: Unrated. Serious adult themes, too somber for children.
A Films Philos release. Writer-director-editor Ramin Bahrani. Producers Ramin Bahrani, Pradip Ghosh, Bedford T. Bentley III. Cinematographer Michael Simmonds. In English and Urdu, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
At selected theaters.