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Man Push Cart
cast: Ahmad Razvi, Leticia Dolera, Charles Daniel Sandoval, Ali Reza, and Farooq 'Duke' Muhammad

director: Ramin Bahrani

97 minutes (15) 2005
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Altra DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Joshua Rainbird
Have you ever wondered who serves you with a smile as you pick up an expresso in a polystyrene cup? That friendly face that greets you every morning yet you are too polite to read the name on their badge. And whatever became of that one-hit-wonder who took over your obsessions during their 15 minutes of fame? Didn't they abandon the industry to pursue an honest living, or something like that? You know, you have their CD somewhere, amongst all the others that clutter your memory. It never gets airplay, well, maybe tomorrow.

Like the titan Sisyphus, who was cursed with pushing a rock up an unconquerable mountain, Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), a Pakistani immigrant, faces the daily strain of pulling a fast-food kiosk through the hazardous gridlock of New York's streets at two AM. Like every other morning he stacks the doughnuts and toasts some bagels in anticipation of his customers' impatient gratitude. Despite the oven and the steamy geyser, the cramped little kiosk seems cold and empty. His wife should be here and so should his son, only the cartoon sticker of a dinosaur marks their absence.

Despite its mundane subject matter, low budget and unknown actors Ramin Bahrani's debut film has been recognised as a masterpiece by the lesser-known film festivals. So how has he managed to take a depressing story and make it work so well?

Firstly, the film has a genuine authenticity that only in-depth research can grant. Ahmad Razvi, a previously unknown actor, used to be a street vendor. But the realism extends deeper than that. Bahrani has created characters that reflect real people, both workers and customers alike, bonded by uncomfortable courtesies. And yet, the film exudes a genuine understanding of what it's like to be an immigrant. There is no 'ghetto mentality' but a loose network of individuals united by the denominator of their ethnicity: office workers, cabbies and vendors suppress class divisions as they reflect upon commonalities, and this is how Ahmad is befriended by Mohammad (Charles Daniel Sandoval), a man with a decent apartment, smart suits and dubious intentions. "I don't really know, Mohammad," Ahmad tries to warn Noemi, the Spanish girl in the cigarette kiosk (Leticia Dolera), as she seems to be wandering into the charmer's trap. For all his upward mobility, Mohammad lacks an identity, is he using Ahmad as a souvenir of the home country? Or is he just after the Spanish girl?

Creating these uncertainties is where the director Ramin Bahrani excels. Cliché shots of malingering hoodies and gloomy graffiti-blasted alleys conspire with unusual camera angles to set up an expectation of menace with unexpected consequences. But this is not a movie where violent crimes are committed on every street corner. Nor has New York been treated with the Parisian airbrush that Jeunet delicately deployed throughout Amélie. Man Push Cart has an earthy realism. The threat of the mean streets lurks amongst the polite mistrust of its honest citizens. These are survivors not gladiators. They are shades in the wastes of Hades surrounded by eager ambitions and meaningless materialism, taunted with desires they will never fulfil of unspent passions and the American dream, where shiny showroom cars stare out onto congested streets. The mugger is the hope that deludes them and the crime - futility.

Man Push Cart feels like an extended short film. The camera shots are superb: low angles make you wince every time Ahmad struggles with the traffic; there is a commercial cosiness about how the muffins are stacked; and the close-ups hover with an incredible indulgence. There are repeating motives, never the same but clearly similar: disposable cups being prepared with teabags; the gas being lit; and long lonely treks on tubes and sidewalks. The camera frames these moments as if they are moving photographs in a fashionable gallery, through the concrete and fumes the raw beauty of Manhattan streetlights shine.

In contrast the soundtrack is Spartan. For a film which is about a singer fallen on hard times, the lack of music is poignant, only a mournful clarinet briefly marks the passage of time like a slow burning cigarette. The other music is always suppressed: distorted by a party in another room; the tinny chittering of a Walkman; chanted prayers, or badly sung karaoke. But this comes across as a deliberate motif rather than a lack of budget. In his grief Ahmad malingers in his private hell, punishing himself like a mute Orpheus. The absence of music heightens the beauty of other sounds: the comforting splash of boiling water and the soft woody tones of Ahmad's words.

The dialogue too is limited as if Ahmad has little to say, and yet Razvi's natural talent enables him to sensitively convey the spirit of the moment with every lingering close-up. Ahmad's life is pathetic, a hand-to-mouth existence based on tentative contacts and casual barter. And yet he is a tragic hero, a champion of adversity, who never wallows in self-pity, who provides impeccable service and seeks to continue his modesty by buying the cart that he's fated to push. After all, he has become a man who just sells coffee and donuts.

Man Push Cart is a film about the American dream and whilst other directors might have perpetuated that urban myth, Bahrani was astute enough to keep to his realism. It is both depressing yet tender and has a depth of storytelling that often is diluted when film budgets expand.

The additional features are negligible: scene selection; a stills gallery (only six in total!); and a few paragraphs of director's statement.

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