New York City's fabled charms and vibrant existence rely on myriad unseen workers, many of them immigrants. Their stories are rarely told, but writer-director Ramin Bahrani has crafted a small heartbreaking study of one of these invisibles. In his meditative drama Man Push Cart, we meet Ahmad, who, were we zipping about midtown Manhattan one day, we might just barely notice while buying a coffee from his street cart.
Thus Bahrani sets us up, like strangers on the street who slowly glean more about Ahmad (portrayed soulfully by Ahmad Razvi). He was once a pop star in his native Pakistan, there's family troubles, he's lonely. The endless drip-drip of small humiliations and back-breaking work is borne stoically. His cart is his immediate hope for better prospects -- he tends it with the care of a lover, and its quilted-steel frame gleams with promise. But into the tedium come two more beacons of hope. One is another Pakistani, now a hotshot businessman, who might jumpstart Ahmad's music career; the other, a young immigrant woman working as a newsstand clerk, who offers empathetic friendship, and maybe more.
Bahrani shot his film literally in the streets of New York City. He employs a deceptively loose documentary style; only upon reflection do you realize how carefully constructed his film is. There's a repetitive pattern of portraying work, hope and despair, with each episode unveiling a little more of Ahmad's unhappiness. The film goes forward, only to roll backward. As Ahmad bends in half to pull his heavy cart through streets to start each day, the allusion to Sisyphus, the eternal rock-pusher of Greek myth, is readily apparent.
Bahrani, with his keen eye clearly honed by mid-century European arthouse films rather than any contemporary underdog heartwarmer, knows that in life it can be the smallest things that add up to heartbreak. You'll likely guess Ahmad's final blow. Yet it hardly matters because now we know who Ahmad is: a tiny flicker of a downsized dream, some residual dignity and a huge rock to keep pushing uphill. In English and some Urdu, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., Feb. 9. Harris