Ramin Bahrani’s new film Chop Shop, like his breakthrough 2005 feature Man Push Cart, is likely to be embraced by its boosters as a modern embodiment of the Italian neorealist style, which made international waves in the 1940s and early 1950s. On a stylistic level, the comparisons are by no means inapt. With these two features, Bahrani shows a remarkable assurance using elements of the neorealist style (long takes, nonprofessional actors, location shooting, and a loosely structured story) to evoke gritty, realistic milieus and create a convincing impression of a camera simply recording real life. And the kinds of stories Bahrani tells—detailing the efforts of working-class protagonists simply trying to survive the daily grind, while keeping alive hopes for some kind of better life—reminds one of the stories Vittorio De Sica powerfully told in films like Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. (Bahrani’s occasional shout-outs to Bicycle Thieves—a stolen food cart in Man Push Cart, a purse stolen out of desperation in Chop Shop—certainly encourage such connections.)
There is one crucial difference, though, one that can’t help but make Bahrani’s two films seem a bit less rich compared to those neorealist classics: a lack of a wider social perspective. The neorealist works of De Sica, Roberto Rossellini and others weren’t explicitly political, but usually they did engage with various levels and aspects of WWII and post-WWII Italian society, showing how working-class people dealt with and responded to, say, the more privileged and wealthy. Their films may have focused on only a handful of characters, but they often added up to something more panoramic in scope. Bahrani’s focus, however, is narrower and more character-based. Thus, the fact that Ahmad, the lonely protagonist of Man Push Cart, is a Pakistani immigrant trying to make a living in post-9/11 New York is barely addressed; neither are the reasons that have led Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), the plucky young hero of Chop Shop, to the poor, desperate state he is in. Anyone who goes into Chop Shop expecting some kind of stealth statement about class divisions in American society will probably be disappointed because Bahrani, unlike those Italian neorealist directors of old, isn’t all that interested in social criticism. Poverty and loneliness, he seemingly acknowledges at the outset, is a fact of life; his focus is more specifically on how poor individuals try, don’t try, or fail to work out of it. In other words, he’s more interested in universals than in topical relevance, and it is on that universal level that both of Bahrani’s films gain their emotional resonance.
Both Chop Shop and Man Push Cart are really character studies spoken in the neorealist idiom. Man Push Cart tells the story of a Pakistani immigrant struggling to make ends meet in Brooklyn, while trying to escape some unspecified inner turmoil; Chop Shop follows a poor, resourceful 12-year-old Latino boy’s various efforts to try to achieve a more secure life for himself and his older sister (Isamar Gonzales) in Willets Point, Queens. Both of these characters are young, rather naïve people trying to better themselves in their own ways, and both eventually find the harsh realities of life, not to mention their own natures, getting in the way of those goals. In Man Push Cart, Ahmad finds his livelihood taken away from him in one fell swoop when his cart gets stolen, while in Chop Shop, Alejandro’s dream of financial security is brutally dashed when the food truck on which he has pinned all his hopes turns out to be useless in selling food.
In its broad outlines, the stories Bahrani tells in both films aren’t particularly new: Bicycle Thieves, after all, is about a man whose dreams of financial security for his poor family disappear once his bicycle is stolen. And like De Sica, Bahrani tells his story with utmost empathy and sensitivity. What I find most interesting and rather unusual in Bahrani’s approach to this familiar template is his refreshingly complex, unsentimental and tough-minded approach to his central characters.
Consider Man Push Cart’s Ahmad. It is never totally explained how he got into the dead-end state he is in, considering that he used to be a major Pakistani rock star and a family man. Now he sells bagels on a Manhattan street corner. Throughout the course of the film, however, he is presented with many opportunities to either make a deep connection with someone or move beyond his job, perhaps to reclaim his rock stardom—and he ends up rejecting just about every single one of those opportunities. We can perhaps intuit that Ahmad’s memories of his dead wife prevent him from going forward with a relationship with a Hispanic woman who sells magazines, but when a businessman and fellow Pakistani, who recognizes him as “the Bono of Lahore,” gets him a ticketing job at a nightclub, why does he end up quitting the first night? Is he just trying to escape his past, or have years of pushing around his cart somehow instilled in him a feeling of societal inferiority?
Bahrani, by keeping his technique simple, his lead actor restrained (almost minimalist in a Bresson-like manner) and his story free from overt social criticism, doesn’t explain and doesn’t judge. And yet, towards the end, when his cart has been stolen and all his options shattered, he seems to allow for the possibility that perhaps Ahmad brought some of his misery on himself by being too passive, too unsure of himself, too locked into his self-pitying despair. I mean, if he was so afraid of kick-starting a second singing career in the United States, why allow himself to be pushed along by the businessman as far as he does? While we never lose sympathy with Ahmad, as the film concludes—with a wide shot of him selling food from another person’s cart as the lights in the trees illuminate the early Brooklyn morning—we have to wonder whether he will ever actually allow himself to break out of his vicious cycle. Perhaps his cart, far from being just a Sisyphean symbol of his modest daily struggle, as Bahrani has publicly stated, is really just a way of hiding himself from the challenges of the real world.
Chop Shop’s Alejandro is a different kind of personality than Ahmad, more extrovert and self-confident. But Bahrani takes a similar approach in examining him. It’s difficult not to admire this kid’s charm and pluck (young nonprofessional Polanco is completely appealing in the part), and even when he resorts to theft in order to achieve his goal of buying that food truck, Bahrani refuses to completely condemn him for it. But, as worldly-wise as Alejandro fancies himself—and you can see his confidence early on simply by observing him walking around, interacting with others, negotiating his way—in the end he comes to realize he isn’t as cunning as he thinks. His dreams are done in by his own youthful naïveté; he scrounges up enough cash to purchase his cherished truck, only to be told by a co-worker (played, ironically enough, by Ahmad Rizvi, the actor who portrayed the main character in Man Push Cart) that the truck is too far gone even for repairs to get it back to city health standards. In effect, he overpaid for a crappy truck. But maybe his fundamental mistake was simply to expect too much (money, a sense of family) out of a mere food truck.
Neither film, however, plays out like a Lars von Trier-esque sadism special, in which heaps of punishment come tumbling down on these people. Bahrani examines his main characters with… not love, exactly. More like a grandfatherly distance. He’s tough on them when they act in unsavory ways (Alejandro, at one point, steals money from his sister, a shocking act not leavened by the fact that his sister earned that money by prostituting herself to strangers), but he is still sympathetic enough to send them off with at least a smidgen of hope. Man Push Cart finds our down-but-not-quite-out protagonist at least being able to man someone else’s cart for a little while. Likewise, the final shot of Chop Shop is of Alejandro making a gesture of reconciliation toward his sister by throwing food at pigeons and then scaring them off; she reluctantly but playfully does the same, and the camera tilts upward with the flying pigeons, the glare of bright sunlight filling the frame. It may not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but after a long series of smashed dreams and grave mistakes, it’s something.
House contributor Kenji Fujishima is a soon-to-be Rutgers University journalism graduate who is currently earning his keep at The Wall Street Journal’s monitor desk in South Brunswick, N.J., while messing around on the side. He maintains—poorly—a blog named My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second. Feel free to check it out.