Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

27 May 2012

The Immigrant Tales of Ramin Bahrani, Pt. 1: Man Push Cart (2005)

A Pakistani immigrant strains to pull a heavy snack cart through the predawn Manhattan streets, a young Dominican boy supports himself by drumming up business for a Queens chop shop, a garrulous Senegalese cabdriver befriends a taciturn old man. Each of Ramin Bahrani's three feature-length films is about the immigrant experience in America, but while there are similarities in tone and theme, what makes his movies among my favorites is the way that they insist on looking at characters not as interchangeable types, but as individuals each trying in his own way to make a place for himself in America. 

Man Push Cart, Photo by Jon Higgins

Anyone who knows anything about my relationship with the movies knows how much i love Italian Neorealism, not just for the films that are a direct part of that tradition (though many are among my favorites), but also for the movement's influence on later independent and developing-world filmmakers. The Neorealists rejected the glamor and high budgets of the Hollywood and prewar Italian film industries and instead attempted to tell the stories of real people living in the real world. Their aesthetic rejected finely crafted sets, elaborate lighting, and big stars, in favor of the grit and compelling humanity of city streets and nonprofessional actors. Ramin Bahrani's films show that the Neorealist tradition is alive and well and still has the power to tell compelling and powerful stories.

Inspired by Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, Man Push Cart (2005) tells the story of Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), who makes his living selling coffee and bagels from one of those ubiquitous aluminum carts that line the streets of Manhattan and other major American cities. He is one of the invisible people whose lives often go unremarked by those in need of that quick jolt of caffeine on the way to the office. In the opening scene, we see him struggling to pull the cart by hand to his spot on the street. It is a moving and moody scene, contrasting the bluesy beauty of that moment before the city comes to life with the physical struggle of one man whose day begins too early. He continues on his way as the sun rises and the traffic increases in volume, and the peril and hardship of his life becomes tangible. The cart is designed to be towed by a vehicle, not pulled by hand, and so instead of being part of the increasing flow of traffic, Ahmad is in danger of being hit by a truck at any moment. 

There's a sadness about Ahmad, the causes of which are revealed only slowly and never completely. By the end of the film we know a little more about this man, but are still left wondering about many of the details that led him to his current situation. Ahmad has a son, but the child lives with his maternal grandparents. He had a wife, but she died some time after their arrival in America; we never learn the details of her death, but her family holds Ahmad responsible and seems to be punishing him by keeping his son from him. When he is befriended by one of his customers, a fellow Pakistani and apparently wealthy businessman, we learn that Ahmad was a successful rock musician in his native Lahore. His is the reverse image of the rags-to-riches immigrant tale; he's a guy who seems to have had it all and lost it when he came to America. 

Although the production values in the film are not what you would find in a well-financed studio film, the use of locations contributes a raw visual power to the film. Often the action is obscured by the darkness of the setting, but then the brilliance of Manhattan, with its glittering shop displays and holiday lights, dazzles the eye, reminding us of those obscured lives playing out in the shadow of the metropolis (Bahrani explores this visual rhetoric even more effectively in the contrast between the seedy streets of Willets Point, Queens and the bright lights of Shea Stadium in his second film, Chop Shop). Like Antonio Ricci, the central character in de Sica's Neorealist masterwork, Bicycle Thieves, Ahmad is struggling to make a living on the economic fringes of the city; and like Antonio, he gets no Hollywood ending. But what we as viewers get is a touching and powerful reminder of the depth, complexity, precariousness, and dignity of the lives of those who too often go unnoticed. 

Theatrical trailer.

For more information on the films of Ramin Bahrani, click here.   

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