We see him only in flashes, and that’s odd because he is there every day, trekking from the subway station to the cart depot in the middle of the night, bearing the heavy tank of gas fuel for his stove, stocking his cart, pulling it uphill over the noisy street beside buses and taxis and night-shift drivers, to the same corner near Times Square, where he sets up his bagels and
doughnuts and tea bags in cups. We don’t know his name, and we haven’t had a look at his face. What we see is his legs taking steps, his hands doing work, close-ups that keep him tightly framed or surround him by a vendor’s window like the mannequin in the adjacent shop. Yet his cart, its silvery surface reflecting the vibrancy of the city, sparkles like the bare trees lined with glittery holiday lights. For the longest time there is not a word. Only the singing of another cart driver passing by, speaking Urdu to offer help, pierces the din of the city in motion.
There are a few bright spots in his life beyond the Christmas balls that light up the street. A man appears at his cart and introduces himself as Mohammad (Charles Daniel Sandoval), also from Pakistan. Ahmad treats him to a free breakfast, and in no time finds himself painting walls and staining furniture to renovate this banker’s elegant apartment. But Mohammad recognizes Ahmad in another way, from another life, and though the vendor won’t own up to it, the banker introduces him to Noemi (Leticia Dolera) in this way. She was a translator in Spain, but now she works at the magazine stand where Ahmad buys his cigarettes. Her smile draws him in, and it’s the first time we see Ahmad in full light, but he holds back from opening himself up to her. Meanwhile, Mohammad is ready to swoop her up, inviting her out for couscous and then to the opera while he arranges for Ahmad to sell tickets at his friend’s night club. Noemi is smitten with Ahmad and gives him more than one chance with her. But as lonely as he is, Ahmad is achingly slow to move.
The same frames that trap Ahmad in his fragmented world also serve as windows into his life. There are angry in-laws, mourners commemorating a year of loss, a sad little boy, and friends who have been attacked with racist violence, and we learn all this without any of the details, because they would not suffice. What matters is that Ahmad’s torment, the path he now treads daily, is also his only comfort. Near the end of the film an act of fate breaks this routine with a jolt, and with equally severe consequences. Within moments Ahmad finds himself sheltered again in his own way, lodged between a rock and a hard place, so to speak… only this time he is not alone. The music of the film changes its rhythm and is played an octave higher, even if on Ahmad’s face there is barely the glimmer of a smile.
It’s tempting to compare the film with classics as diverse as Bicycle Thieves and Taxi Driver, but Man Push Cart succeeds with a language distinctly its own. The film’s electrifying beauty owes much to Director of Photography Michael Simmonds’ stunning sense of color and light. Working with the city’s source light, he achieves a Manhattan middle-of-the-night ambiance that intrigues the eye like no other. From the shiny aluminum walls of the cart, textured with diamond-shaped facets, to the puddles on the pavement, surfaces refract the hues of the holiday in gold and silver brilliance or often a rosy amber glow, offset dramatically by the black screens to which Bahrani cuts or fades at the end of a scene. Especially radiant is the sidewalk store stocked with a rainbow of fresh fruit and flowers that serves as a luminous foil for the blackness in which Ahmad sets up his lonely cart each day before dawn. The dark of night, of life, of the unconscious that drifts to another time and place, are ever present beside the neon sign above an empty parking lot proclaiming “Toys R Us.”
Bahrani is a stylist of tone, sustaining its purity, intensity, and integrity in relation to life through his commitment to his subject. The many flashes of Ahmad’s routine, rhythmic and richly nuanced, are truly all of a piece. But this writer-director-editor-producer is also a great cinephile. Connoisseurs may sense the legacies of Bresson, Cassavetes, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien in the film’s insistence on real locations, its quiet attention to detail, its intimate lingering on an exhausted face. A bonus track on the DVD highlights these from a behind-the-scenes point of view. As he builds his film with minimal dialogue and elliptical editing, Bahrani is in the company of these masters, and also Abbas Kiarostami with his non-intrusive, observational camera. But is doesn’t take an expert to see Bahrani tip his hat to Umberto D., or so we might call him — an old man walking his little dog near the end of Man Push Cart. He evokes all the despair and resilience of De Sica’s dispossessed pensioner as Ahmad assists an elderly vendor and contemplates his own destiny.
With first-time actors playing from their own experience as pushcart vendors, night club impresarios, and targets of hate crimes, all in their authentic neighborhoods in which the scri pt was written based on their lives, Ramin Bahrani offers some indelible impressions. Man Push Cart, his luminous portrait of a sensitive worker we could get to know, ultimately recalls Robert J. Flaherty’s early vision of the art: cinema, at its best, is an outgrowth — and an extension — of life itself.