Ramin Bahrani’s 2005 debut feature Man Push Cart centers around a widowed Pakistani immigrant named Ahmad who is struggling to make ends meet in post-9/11 NYC. Heavily influenced by Italian neorealism Bahrani's film captures the isolation and sorrow of a man caught in an endless cycle of disappointments in a city where he doesn’t belong. The Criterion Collection brings the film to Blu-ray with an excellent A/V presentation and plenty of special features to dive deeper into this Sisyphean tale. Highly Recommended.
“He’s up in Albany working at Dunkin’ Donuts. That’s the life, man.”
Man Push Cart offers a bleak slice of life as a once-popular musician from Pakistan toils each day working the agonizing labor of a food vendor cart on the streets of Manhattan. We aren’t given too much context on Ahmad’s life other than the routine of his day but when a glimmer of hope appears we’re given a deeper insight into his struggles of chasing the American dream.
When a yuppie businessman Mohammed (Charles Daniel Sandoval) recognizes Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) as a former pop star in Pakistan he offers to help him get his music career back on track along with some construction work at his high-rise apartment. The promises made feel shallow but to Ahmad, there is the hope of regaining his past life. Between his day of stacking doughnuts, pulling his cart through the streets, and taking orders he befriends a gentle Spanish woman named Noemi who works at a newsstand nearby. In any other story the two would instantly fall in love and face their struggles head-on but like Mohammad’s business offers the clash of Ahmad’s past and present opens hidden wounds.
Bahrani’s camera keeps us at a distance while we observe Ahmad’s bleak existence unfolding each day. Eschewing narrative and stylistic indulgences the film is fueled by raw emotional power keeping this lo-fi feature focused primarily on a cold, fatalistic tone. Fleeting moments of levity keep Man Push Cart from being a complete slog of a story but ultimately result in elevating the emotional tears in Ahmad’s psyche. Whether it's a chance to interact with his son or adopting a stray kitten off the street fate ultimately rears its ugly head.
Performances are naturalistic and engaging. Bahrani’s Ahmad carries a heavy burden throughout the film that we can see just from looking into his weary eyes. Body language speaks volumes here as well since most of our journey with Ahmad is spent seeing the small details of his day from stacking doughnuts to sleeping on the train. Leticia Dolera is gentle and warm as Noemi giving a hopefulness to the story. The supporting cast is mostly non-professional actors whose limited abilities aren’t strained during the film but noticeable.
There are so many movies about New York City. In Man Push Cart we are given an unfiltered view of the city post 9/11 from the viewpoint of its most seen yet unseen inhabitants: street vendors. What Bahrani accomplished here is extraordinary but yet feels like an experimental documentary toying with heightened emotional elements. I enjoyed following along with Ahmad seeing how his story would develop but by the end it became more emotionally engaging than I expected.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Man Push Cart arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Criterion Collection. The single BD-50 disc is housed in a typical transparent keepcase with an insert booklet. The disc loads to the familiar Criterion style menu screen with slider navigation options. Scoring plays behind the cover art image.
Man Push Cart makes the HD leap with a great-looking 1080p transfer in 1.78:1. Image quality is excellent save for some early night shots in the film that harbor a healthy amount of noise. Plenty of detail and texture though a softness pervades the image at times. Any inconsistencies in the image can be traced to early HD equipment as well as the director’s learn-as-you-go approach. Primaries are strong from Ricky’s newsstand magazine rack to the yellow taxis darting around Ahmed’s cart. Facial features and costuming provide plenty of texture and detail.
Black levels are solid though noise permeates the image slightly during the nighttime shots of Ahmad pulling his cart. Filmed during the advent of good HD imaging there are moments of waning image detail and clarity but this rarely detracts from the experience and at times further develops the documentary feel of the film.
The robust 5.1 DTS HD-MA audio track brings the isolation and daily grind of Man Push Cart to life. The audio track is confident carrying the atmospheric weight of a busy NYC cityscape from ground level. Traffic, chatter, and the noisy bustling of the city occupy the surround channels nicely creating a well-balanced texture with crisp dialogue from the center and front channels. Scoring by Peyman Yazdanian adds an emotional depth to the proceedings while never overpowering the film.
Criterion has given this release plenty of special features for those interested in learning more about the film. Start with the featurettes then move onto the commentary track.
A bleak post-9/11 neorealism immigrant story, Man Push Cart offers a sorrowful perspective of one man’s struggle for the American Dream. Filled with tension, raw emotional performances, and an unfiltered view of NYC this debut feature from Ramin Bahrani is a phenomenal accomplishment worth checking out. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray provides an excellent A/V package with plenty of special features for fans of the film. Highly Recommended.