Ramin Bahrani’s subtly resonant character portrait Man Push Cart applies a rapt focus to the daily routine of its protagonist, Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), a former rock star from Lahore who now works a coffee-and-pastry pushcart in New York City. By the end of the film, the repeated images of man pushing cart have merged into an infinite loop, a visually eloquent summation of the stoic hero’s existential plight.

Bahrani, an Iranian American from North Carolina, says the idea for the film came to him after 9-11. “Bush was bombing Afghanistan and I was thinking of the Afghans I knew in New York—pushcart vendors, guys I’d bought coffee from and gotten to know because I speak Persian too.” He decided to make the lead character Pakistani after meeting Razvi, who was working at a Brooklyn café at the time.

Anchored in a potent metaphor—the image of the vendors wrangling their carts reminded Bahrani of Camus’s The Myth of SisyphusMan Push Cart derives its power from an accumulation of details. The director spent months observing vendors he knew: “I became familiar with where the garages are, what time they woke up, where they put their cigarette when they’re serving someone.”

Set largely between sunset and dawn, Man Push Cart illuminates the murky beauty—and hardscrabble economics—of the city’s all-night shadowland. John Cassavetes’s nocturnal odyssey The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was a key inspiration for Bahrani and his cinematographer, Michael Simmonds. “In terms of lighting, we really wanted to push the limits of darkness,” Bahrani says.

While not overtly political, Man Push Cart (which Films Philos will release in the fall) is a matter-of-fact portrait of the daily trials of assimilation for a young Muslim man in post–9-11 America. The production itself did not go unnoticed in midtown Manhattan. “We were stopped six times because people were calling us terrorists,” says Bahrani. Apparently the pushcart’s propane tank caused some alarm among passersby. “One guy asked if we were funding a Bin Laden training camp. I even got calls from the FBI. I learned very quickly that a Pakistani guy with a beard and a gas tank can be a frightening image.”