Two SMALL but acclaimed features into his career, New York-based director Ramin Bahrani already has set himself apart as a distinctive voice in the American indie film landscape. His movies often prompt comparison to the landmarks of Italian neo-realism (or to that movement’s present-day Iranian descendants), and while they were shot on location in New York, for many viewers they might as well be set in an alternate universe.
Bahrani’s “Chop Shop,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year and is being released on DVD by Koch Lorber this week, unfolds in Willets Point, a ramshackle section of Queens, New York. This potholed stretch of junkyards and dubious auto shops, also called the Iron Triangle, is not exactly in the middle of nowhere. It sits in the hulking shadows of the National Tennis Center, where the U.S. Open is played, and Shea Stadium, the soon-to-be-dismantled home of the Mets. The Manhattan skyline is visible just a few miles away.
Willets Point is more than an exotic backdrop in “Chop Shop”; it’s basically the film’s main character, a tangible context for the hardscrabble lives of its protagonists. The tenacious 12-year-old hero, Ale (Alejandro Polanco), works for a repair garage and in exchange gets to spend his nights in the room above it. The kid is forever on the go -- when he’s not reeling in customers with his fast-talking pitch, he hawks bootleg DVDs, sells candy on the subway and pulls off the occasional purse snatching.
There’s not much plot, just a steady accumulation of details. What little drama there is exists mostly in the relationship between Ale and his older sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), who arrives one day to stay with him.
Bahrani declines to explain how these apparently orphaned siblings got where they are, and he avoids sentimentality in his quiet portrayal of their (generally unspoken) hopes and disappointments. But there’s an unforced poignancy in the way brother and sister interact and particularly in Ale’s protectiveness toward Isamar. He longs to convert a rusty old van into a taco truck -- not least so his sister can give up her secret sideline in prostitution.
Bahrani’s previous feature, “Man Push Cart,” which received a limited theatrical release in 2006, is also a subtle character portrait that applies close scrutiny to the daily routine of its protagonist. (The DVD is available through Koch Lorber, which is also issuing both films in a two-disc set this week.)
Ahmad (the charismatic Ahmad Razvi, who has a supporting role in “Chop Shop”) is a former rock star from Pakistan (“the Bono of Lahore”) who now works a coffee-and-pastry pushcart in New York City.
Set largely in the hours between sunset and dawn, the film illuminates the murky beauty -- and shady economics -- of the city’s all-night shadowland. And while not overtly political, it is a matter-of-fact portrait of the daily trials of assimilation for a young Muslim man in post-9/11 America. The film is anchored in a potent visual metaphor: the Sisyphean image of the vendors wrangling their carts along the streets of Manhattan. By the end, the recurring scenes of men pushing carts have formed a kind of endless loop, a haunting summation of its hero’s purgatorial existence.