An example of spare, slice-of-life indie cinema at its most unpretentious, "Man Push Cart" adeptly and subtly layers facts about the protag's history and character into his story. Sophomore helmer Ramin Bahrani, an American of Persian heritage, enters the normally hidden world of a morning coffee vendor in Manhattan, simply and affectingly capturing the vendor's struggle for identity and self-confidence. Beautifully textured film is a natural for fests and arthouses, and could easily develop buzz in Gotham.
Long before sunrise, Pakistani immigrant Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) is up and stocking his pushcart with coffee, doughnuts and bagels. Ahmad must push the cart himself along traffic-congested streets to reach his regular corner.
Back in Pakistan, he had a hit CD, but somewhere between Lahore and the present, his life fell to pieces: His wife died, his son is being looked after by his unsympathetic in-laws, and money is a constant source of anxiety. To help make ends meet, he sells bootleg porno DVDs.
Hope, an attribute almost lost to Ahmad, returns when young businessman Mohammad (Charles Daniel Sandoval) recognizes the former pop singer and promises to get him hooked up with people who can resurrect his career in the U.S. Until then, Mohammad offers him odd jobs around his new apartment.
Soon, Ahmad meets Noemi (Leticia Dolera), a young Spanish woman helping her uncle out at a news kiosk. The two strike up a friendship, mostly promoted by Noemi, due to Ahmad's lack of self-esteem. Mohammad takes advantage of Ahmad's gentle nature to woo Noemi himself.
Bahrani gradually unfolds details until all the gaps are closed and disappointments laid bare. This is a world lived mostly at night, beginning in the wee hours and rarely graced by the sun. Tight shots and murky lighting heighten the sense of a lone figure quietly moving through the streets with his portable gas tank weighing down one arm.
Lead actor Razvi was himself a pushcart vendor, and his experiences were partly incorporated into his character. He doesn't speak much, but carries with him a palpable sense of defeat that adds to Ahmad's dignity and sorrow.
Aside from Dolera ("Imagining Argentina"), the rest of the thesping feels amateurish.
Blow-up from HD retains a graininess and shadowy quality that hits the right note in conveying a world rarely noticed.
Camera (color, HD-to-35mm), Michael Simmonds; music, Peyman Yazdanian; art director, Charles Dafler; costume designer, Elena Kouvaros; sound (Dolby Digital), Christof Gebert; sound designer, Abigail Savage; assistant director, Nicholas Elliott. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Venice Days), Sept. 4, 2005. Running time: 86 MIN.