God bless early September, when the Golden Corral buffet of summer blockbusters gives way to the home-cooked meal of smaller independent fare. This week, two films are opening that have a lot in common: They're both character studies of deeply sad, lonely people who manage to do their jobs well in the face of overwhelming odds; they're both incredibly depressing; and they're both quite good. One of the films, Le Petit Lieutenant (Cinema Guild), takes place in Paris, but a Paris quite unlike the sparkling, romantic city you're used to seeing on film. The other, Man Push Cart (Films Philos), is set in the middle of New York City, yet somehow it makes America feel like a place you've never been before.
Man Push Cart is the first feature film of Ramin Bahrani, a young Iranian-American director with an evident familiarity with the work of Abbas Kiarostami and Robert Bresson. It opens on what will become a familiar image: In the pitch darkness of an early Manhattan morning, Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi, a former pushcart vendor in real life) drags his pushcart to the Midtown corner where he sells coffee, bagels, and doughnuts to harried office workers. Ahmad is the kind who doesn't reveal his secrets easily, but it's clear from his haggard, haunted face that this is a guy with some serious back story.
A glimpse of that story comes out when he crosses paths with Mohammad (Charles Daniel Sandoval), a wealthy fellow Pakistani who remembers Ahmad's former life as a well-known singer-songwriter in Pakistan. We never quite learn what turn of fate reduced Ahmad to manning a coffee cart and selling porn bootlegs on the side, nor why he's estranged from his young son, who's being raised by relatives nearby. But as he drags that cart to its post every morning, we start to root for him in spite of a sneaking feeling that, sometime in the past, he may have screwed up pretty badly.
Two uneasy relationships let at least some light into the tunnel of Ahmad's life: Mohammad offers him extra work as a contractor and dangles the promise of a record deal, and a Spanish girl named Noemi (Leticia Dolera), who works at a newsstand, starts to hang around the coffee cart, offering shy smiles and back issues of music magazines. But Mohammad's money upsets the balance of power in this threesome as he and Noemi begin to flirt—somehow an evening of opera at the Met is more appealing than beer and karaoke with a doughnut vendor. When a simple but unthinkable misfortune befalls Ahmad at work, his fragile world begins to disintegrate.
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. Ahmad Razvi is superb as the troubled hero—he conveys more in 10 seconds of stillness than many actors do in entire careers. 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. But if one of the things movies are supposed to do is make you look anew at the world around you, you may never see your doughnut vendor in the same way again.
Le Petit Lieutenant is what the French call un policier, a procedural thriller, complete with cops, bad guys, chases, and clues. But if you go in expecting an episode of CSI: Paris, with a spectacularly gruesome crime, wisecracking detectives, and a tight, suspenseful resolution, you'll not only be grimly disappointed, you'll miss what's best about this quietly affecting film. Like Man Push Cart, Le Petit Lieutenant, directed by Xavier Beauvois (Nord, Don't Forget You're Going To Die) focuses on the day-to-day drudgery of work, this time in the homicide division of a Paris police department.
New chief inspector Caroline Vaudieu (Nathalie Baye, who won a best actress Cesar Award for the role) is a reformed alcoholic just back on the job after a long stint in recovery. She finds herself partnered with the "little lieutenant" of the title, a fresh-from-the-academy recruit named Antoine (Jalil Lespert). We learn much later that Antoine is exactly the age that Vaudieu's son, who died as a child, would be if he had lived. But Vaudieu never tells her young partner this fact—she's far too cagey to share that kind of intimacy. Instead, she communicates her affection in subtler ways, watching Antoine's back as he's hazed by his fellow officers, even sharing a joint with him by the banks of the canal where they're investigating the death of a homeless man.
What looks like an accidental drowning turns out to be one in a string of serial murders, having to do with a convoluted (and, frankly, somewhat incomprehensible) quarrel among Polish and Russian immigrants. But the crime plot feels all but incidental to Le Petit Lieutenant, which is as much about workplace politics and personal redemption as it is about solving a murder case. As Antoine's idealism clashes with the go-along-to-get-along ethics of the other squad members, he endangers both his standing at work and his own safety; and as Vaudieu's personal investment in Antoine grows, she veers ever closer to losing her hard-won sobriety. I won't give away the plot twist that brings both these stories together, except to say that the final minute of the movie is one of the most bleak, and moving, endings I've seen in years.