Sisyphus, Making It Work on the Streets of New York - "Man Push Cart" Review

By Stephen Holden The New York Times

Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), the Pakistani immigrant who is the protagonist of Ramin Bahrani's "Man Push Cart," goes through a Sisyphean daily grind. In the wee small hours of each morning, he commutes by subway from his shabby one-room apartment in Brooklyn to Midtown Manhattan, where he sells coffee, doughnuts and bagels on the street. Lugging his portable propane tank, he stocks his stainless-steel cart, then pushes it through traffic to his station on a corner of Avenue of the Americas.

Much of the movie takes place before sunrise during the winter months, and images of the illuminated spire of the Chrysler Building spearing the night sky and of tree branches crusted with tiny white lights evoke the city's crushing indifference. In the scenes filmed in daylight, it is often raining.

It makes Mr. Bahrani's small, bleak film no less gripping to know that it was, in fact, partly inspired by "The Myth of Sisyphus," Albert Camus's treatise on the absurdity of existence. The movie sparingly dishes out the details of Ahmad's life, leaving many questions unanswered. We learn that his wife died a year earlier (there is a brief, awkward flashback to happier days) but not how she died. Because Ahmad can't afford a large enough place, his 6-year-old son (Hassan Razvi) is living with his in-laws. Ahmad's angry mother-in-law (Razia Mujahid) blames him for her daughter's death and tries to keep his son from him.

We also learn that Ahmad was a Pakistani rock star who had a hit record in 1995. Exactly when and how he came to the United States is never specified. He now sells bootleg pornographic DVD's as a sideline, for $8 apiece or two for $15. (The movie quickly lures you into its desperate nickel-and-dime mind-set.)

Ahmad's stoic, lonely existence is brightened by three events. He forms a friendship with Noemi (Leticia Dolera), a pretty young Spanish woman from Barcelona who temporarily runs her uncle's newsstand, and the relationship develops a romantic undertow. He is also taken up by Mohammad (Charles Daniel Sandoval), a successful Pakistani businessman who recognizes "the Bono of Lahore," as he hyperbolically calls Ahmad, and offers to help restart his musical career.

Mohammad, who can be brusquely condescending, gives Ahmad work painting and fixing up his new apartment and gets him a short-lived evening job taking tickets at a nightclub. He even lends him $500 to complete the $5,000 first installment on his cart, which will ultimately cost him $15,000.

And finally, Ahmad finds a stray kitten and impulsively brings it home. But as tenderly as he feels toward his pet, which becomes a surrogate for his son, he has little idea of how to care for it. He gives it milk instead of water and doesn't have it use a litter box.

Filmed in less than three weeks, "Man Push Cart" is an exemplary work of independent filmmaking carried out on a shoestring. Mr. Razvi's convincing performance is a muted portrait of desolation bordering on despair; only once does Ahmad lose his composure and lash out.

If this bare-bones production leaves some seams showing, the sparseness mostly complements the film's vision of a confined existence eked out in the shadows of skyscrapers. Refusing to give Ahmad's struggle a rainbow’s end, the movie is true to the myth. It allows a single, devastating blow, reminiscent of the end of De Sica's "Bicycle Thief," to dash Ahmad's expectations of salvation, leaving him no other choice but to keep rolling that rock uphill.

Originally Published September 8, 2006

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