Note: This review originally ran during the Sundance Film Festival, and is being rerun now because the film has opened in New York City.
In Ramin Bahrani's film, Man Push Cart, Ahmad (Ahmad Ravsi), a former Pakistani pop star, works as one of the city's many pushcart vendors. You never think, when you see those shiny silver carts on every street corner, of how they get there. The vendors who are lucky enough and have enough money for a truck tow their carts, but many more, like Ahmad, push and pull their carts to their designated corner themselves. Bahrani talked in an interview with New York Magazine about watching the city's pushcart vendors and being reminded of Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, in which Sisyphus is condemned to endlessly push a boulder up a mountain, only to have it roll back down. The endless rhythm of Ahmad's days - take the train from his tiny Brooklyn apartment to Manhattan, pick up his cart, pull it - through dangerous New York City traffic - to his corner, then spend the day selling coffee and bagels to hurried New Yorkers, having only the most miniscule shreds of actual human interaction with the occasional friendly regular, then haul the cart back, only to start all over again the next day. Bahrani shows us Ahmad struggling with his cart again and again, establishing a rhythm for the film that mirrors the monotonous parade of days that is Ahmad's life.
Ahmad's life is bleak, and newcomer Ravsi portrays him perfectly, radiating quiet despair. His wife died a year ago and he is separated from his young son, who is being raised by his in-laws, because his apartment is too small and he can't take care of him while working all day. Once a very popular pop star, he is now reduced to selling pirated DVDs on the side and accepting demeaning odd jobs from Mohammad, a wealthy Pakistani who lives in the neighborhood. Mohammad is one of those slippery, successful fellows who is condescending without being aware of it. When he realizes who Ahmad is, he seems to take great pleasure in this former flavor of the month doing menial jobs for him, even as he makes empty promises to help Ahmad restart his musical career.
Also in the neighborhood is Noemi (very engagingly played by Leticia Dolera), a Spanish girl working her relatives' newsstand down the street, and there is chemistry between Noemi and Ahmad from the first time they meet. Ahmad is still grieving his wife, though, and is so mired in desolation, which he buries in the comforting rhythm of the hard labor of his job, he barely notices - at first. Noemi and Ahmad become friends, and maybe they'll become more, but then Mohammad steps in with his cash and opera tickets and party invites and second home in upstate New York to woo her. Ahmad is reluctant to try to go after her himself, in part because of his dead wife, and in part because he feels he can't compete with Mohammad's bank account. Noemi isn't a shallow girl, however; she sees through Mohammad's smooth moves and into Ahmad's heart, but he can't seem to get enough momentum going to pursue her.
Man Push Cart is a beautifully executed film. The stunning cinematography shows off the new, crisp and clean New York, and the city is almost used as a character in and of itself in the film - the guys at the produce stand, the garbage man, the customers, the vendors, even the taxis and buses Ahmad must navigate his cart through, all playing their parts in the ceaselss play that is life in the city that doesn't sleep. This is a painstakingly rendered film about perserverance in the face of emptiness and seemingly insurmountable odds, and yet it isn't a cliched, all's well that ends well film. Ahmad perserveres, yes, but will things ever get better for him? Bahrani, thankfully, avoids the temptation to give us a phony, heartwarming conclusion to Ahmad's difficult life; he leaves that question unanswered, as it is probably unanswered for many of the real pushcart vendors (and other people droning away in the service industries, serving people who largely ignore the humanity of the people waiting on them) out there. This film has already played to several film festivals, and there's a lot of buzz around it here at Sundance; it will be interesting to see what Sundance audiences and critics think of it.