In March 2009, Roger Ebert wrote a column and titled it, “The new great American director.” The film critic was referring to Ramin Bahrani. Bahrani is a soft-spoken director from North Carolina whose parents emigrated from Iran. All five of his films, including the star-studded 99 Homes that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014, focus on the plight of working-class Americans trying to thrive in a land of plenty.
By the time Ebert labeled Bahrani as the new great American director, he had only released three movies in a handful of cinemas. All of them focused on the everyday grind and toil of migrant characters. Of Bahrani’s film Man Push Cart, Ebert wrote: “I saw that film at its world premiere at Sundance 2006. Low budget, unheralded. I felt strongly that I was seeing the work of a great director. I felt the same way after seeing Scorsese’s first film. There was an artistic intelligence alive beneath the immediate vision.”
Ebert and Bahrani later became friends. The American director even had a small appearance in Life Itself, Steve James’ documentary tribute to the late critic. Without Ebert’s four-star rave for Man Push Cart, one wonders whether Bahrani would have encountered the same notoriety and success. Ebert was not alone in his praise. Bahrani’s micro-budgeted films, which starred many actors who had never been in a film before, were beloved by many critics and, eventually, art-house crowds. But few film writers could watch Man Push Cart and Chop Shop without mentioning the word “neorealism.”
In an industry where stories about immigrants trying to adapt to a new society and culture are seldom seen, Bahrani became an essential and important voice.
A term often used to describe dreary Italian postwar dramas (such as Bicycle Thieves and Rome, Open City) neorealist films look and feel like documentaries. The settings are real city streets and homes, the characters are often played by non-professional actors and the stories are about poverty and working-class struggle. Recent indie hits like Sugar, Wendy and Lucy and Winter’s Bone all fit within the contours of this American neorealism.
In this new film movement, Bahrani found a niche. The director’s New York City-set dramas feel urgent and real. In an industry where stories about immigrants trying to adapt to a new society and culture are seldom seen, Bahrani became an essential and important voice.
Man Push Cart marked his arrival. The film focuses on Ahmad, a Pakistani immigrant played by Ahmad Razvi. Ahmad gets up before dawn every day, takes the train into downtown Manhattan and prepares his food cart to sell rich patrons coffee and bagels during the morning rush hour. When not inside his bulky, stainless steel cart, Ahmad works other low-pay jobs and tries to sell X-rated DVDs to earn a bit of extra income.
Withdrawn and often looking down, Ahmad could be an image of what happens when the American Dream doesn’t go according to plan. We learn in passing that his wife died a year earlier – we never find out how – and as a result, her parents have taken his son away. The only way Ahmad can prove himself as a worthy parent is to provide his boy a living, and that is not easy for a food vendor.
One morning, he meets Mohammad (Charles Daniel Sandoval), a Pakistani man in a suit. Like Ahmad, Mohammad also grew up in Lahore, but he now lives in a Manhattan apartment and makes a six-figure salary. Mohammad realizes after a while that Ahmad looks exactly like a Pakistani pop star from the mid-1990s. That was Ahmad’s old life. In the 21st century, he is just trying to give a bit of happiness to white-collar workers on their daily commute.
Upon the film’s limited release, many critics noted the film’s unconventional structure. While there is a love interest – a Spanish newspaper vendor played by Leticia Dolera – the film is episodic and has an abrupt conclusion.
Often, there is no music. Usually, the sound mix is filled with fast moving, constantly honking cars and trucks that surround Ahmad as he pulls his cart on the side of the road. The cars move faster than he does. Although Man Push Cart takes place in a hectic city, Bahrani makes sure to keep the camera on the protagonist’s level. He never looks up to notice the big buildings around him, because what is the point?
While the city is vertical, Ahmad’s life is horizontal. Bahrani focuses on the minutiae of the job – washing the cart with soap, setting up the food displays. It doesn’t change from the first scene to the last. The camera also rarely leaves the protagonist, although at one point, it lingers on a Mercedes Benz dealership – another luxury Ahmad will never afford.
The only glimpses of noted New York skyscrapers is from the subway, which shows them in the distance, looking like gleaming towers from another planet. The director uses a similar shot at the beginning of Chop Shop, with the Empire State Building a hazy landmark across the river.
Few film writers could watch Man Push Cart and Chop Shop without mentioning the word “neorealism.”
Like Man Push Cart, Chop Shop is a New York story about the downtrodden hoping for a way out of poverty. The drama focuses on 12-year-old Latino immigrant Ale (the revelatory Alejandro Polanco). Ale is a street-smart kid who is much more exuberant than Ahmad from Bahrani’s previous film. He works at a car repair shop and is slowly learning the ropes of how to succeed at that job. The pre-teen is tied between two realms: being a kid with pal Carlos (Carlos Zapata) and earning his stripes as a self-sufficient man.
Chop Shop shares many features with Bahrani’s earlier film, beyond many of the actors using their own names as their characters. Ale is hoping to earn enough money to buy a food cart, where he could start a business selling tacos with his older sister. He also takes a lot of dirty jobs to get there. However, the boy is like a modern-day update of Dickens’ Artful Dodger, scheming and stealing from others to get what he wants. Instead of going to school, Ale swindles subway passengers and grabs car parts from vehicles parked in the Shea Stadium lot, just blocks away from his workplace.
As in Man Push Cart, the camera travels with Ale through the squalid Queens area he works. The camera rarely tilts up to show the city in its splendor, but keeps the action mostly at ground level. In a lovely literary allusion, the auto shop where Ale works is set near the shop where mechanic George Wilson made his living in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Polanco is more exuberant than Razvi, which makes one think Chop Shop will be a more hopeful film than the mostly dispirited Man Push Cart. However, the film is also a coming-of-age tale, and Ale must come to terms with some harsh realities as he recognizes his place on the socioeconomic ladder. Bahrani even ends the film with a close-up of a bird flying to freedom, an upward mobility that he denies his protagonist.
Man Push Cart and Chop Shop are not feel-good films, unless you want to feel good about the quality of modern art-house American cinema. With emotional honesty and technical mastery, Bahrani exposes the difficulty new Americans face in the big city. The scenes in his films seem so real and lived-in that you barely notice the story strands he creates.
Ramin Bahrani’s wrenching, wonderful tales of working-class immigrants trying to get through hard times helped to launch a new movement in American cinema. Perhaps he was labeled a new great American director by so many because Bahran was one of the only filmmakers around to point his camera at a new vision of America.