Every night while the city sleeps, Ahmad, a former Pakistani rock star turned immigrant, drags his heavy cart along the streets of New York. And every morning, he sells coffee and donuts to a city he cannot call his own. One day, however, the pattern of this harsh existence is broken by a glimmer of hope for a better life.
Man Push Cart is both highly specific to its big-city setting and universal in its poetic sense of toil and rootlessness.
Populating his cast with newcomers, nonprofessionals, and occasional people off the street, and shooting with a tiny crew in actual locations, utilizing available light and high-definition video, Bahrani was able to portray the real corners of this working-class world with minimal fuss or inconvenience. Ordinary customers occasionally came to the cart manned by Razvi and ordered week-old doughnuts and prop coffee. The filmmakers themselves were sometimes accused of being terrorists.
Bahrani’s early films have sometimes been characterized as neorealist, and while he has taken some issue with this designation, they do share with Italian neorealism this tendency to deromanticize their otherwise familiar settings, to present iconic cities shorn of recognizable buildings and skylines.
The kitten’s death comes right after Ahmad has a terse, heartbreaking exchange with his young son, who keeps his head down and basically refuses to talk to him. The juxtaposition suggests that this man, despite his overwhelming love for and desire to live with his boy, may ultimately not be able to take care of a young child.
— Bilge Ebiri (Criterion)
Even at 87 minutes, Man Push Cart feels slow, but it’s a good kind of slow. The pace is deliberate enough that details like a sticker on the side of the coffee cart are allowed to blossom into significance. [But] the movie isn’t perfect; at least one subplot, involving Ahmad’s former wife, is left so ambiguous that it amounts to a tease on the filmmaker’s part.
— Dana Stevens (Slate)
Man Push Cart is ultimately one-note, exuding a cold, omniscient perspective that increasingly becomes akin to that of a scientist clinically watching a rat futilely search for a bite of cheese at the end of a maze. And finally, the filmmaker’s labored attempts to avoid trafficking in hope have the deleterious effect of casting nearly every scene as a disingenuous, pedantic example of the cosmos’s callous cruelty.
— Nick Schager and Derek Smith (Slant)