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Issue Date:  September 29, 2006

Cobblestones and feats of magic

'The Illusionist' delights with old fashioned pleasures; 'Man Push Cart' a portrayal of loneliness


Neil Burger’s The Illusionist delights us because its pleasures are so old-fashioned. The sepia tone of its opening shots conveys a pleasing sense of fin de siècle Vienna, its magic shows encourage a suspension of disbelief, and everything encourages our sense that happy endings are inevitable. Based on “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Steven Millhauser, this handsomely produced melodrama counts on our innocent delight in mystification and the victory of beauty over wickedness.

Don’t go to the movie trying to see through its tricks. We first meet the title character as the son of a village craftsman, whose gift for magic has ignited a childhood romance with young Sophie von Teschen, daughter of a nobleman. But aristocratic power quickly separates the children, and the scene shifts abruptly to an elegant theater in Hapsburg Vienna where an intense Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is delighting the audience with feats of prestidigitation. He is closely observed by Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), an ambitious son of a butcher working for Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell).

The mysterious music of Philip Glass is always focused on the movement of the story. We enjoy the cobblestones and buildings almost as much as Eisenheim’s remarkable illusions, like that of the orange tree that grows from a seed in a vase as we gasp with delight.

Eisenheim asks for a volunteer and the now-countess Sophie (Jessica Biel, who is asked only to be elegantly lovely) comes up from the audience to help with a trick that is much appreciated by Inspector Uhl. The subsequent recognition and reunion of the lovers, however, soon becomes known to the explosive and sadistic crown prince, who is planning to marry Sophie himself.

On stage, Eisenheim’s intense concentration, hooded eyes, and Vandyke beard give him an intriguing ambivalence; for a long time we’re unsure whether he represents innocence or cunning. The prince, who is plotting to become the Austro-Hungarian emperor, is understandably enraged to hear the magician’s followers speak of a coming “spiritual republic.” Inspector Uhl is ordered to keep Eisenheim under close watch. Actor Paul Giamatti almost steals the movie by giving this divided character a wry humor that matches his intense awareness.

“The Illusionist” is a conscious tease whose suggestiveness regarding the politics of the times or the fickleness of crowds hardly needs to be taken seriously. It works because it makes us want to believe in its magic, and Eisenheim’s command performance, a scene in which he balances the prince’s sword on end on the floor, is genuinely thrilling. Indeed, the whole movie is like the locket that is central to its plot. It shouldn’t snap together, but somehow it does.

Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart is an extreme contrast, a film that masterfully portrays the loneliness of a street vendor in the noise of Manhattan. It won’t get wide distribution, but its director, a Pakistani who teaches film writing at Hunter College in New York City, is someone you’ll be hearing from again.

The central images of the movie show Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), a Pakistani immigrant now living in a small room in Brooklyn, pushing his stainless steel cart through the dangers of mid-Manhattan traffic to his midtown post. While dispensing coffee, doughnuts and bagels, he is friendly and efficient, and director Bahrani offers few hints of what brought him to this lonely existence.

Occasional Pakistani customers are friendly; some remember him as a rock star in the old country. His wife has died, but there are no details about her death. We know only that his mother-in-law is angry and tries to keep his 6-year-old son away from him.

There are few interruptions of his long, monotonous days filled with loud noises and occasional glimpses of the Chrysler Building. Occasionally he sells an illegal, presumably pornographic, DVD to a dealer for $8 but this offers less hope than his relationship to Mohammad (Charles Daniel Sandoval), a successful Pakistani businessman, who recognizes him as a musical star in the old country and lends him money to pay part of the price of his cart. Mohammad gives Ahmad extra work fixing up his new apartment, but a more interesting relationship develops fitfully with Noemi (Leticia Dolera), an attractive young woman from Barcelona, who is filling in for a few months as manager of her uncle’s newsstand.

Director Bahrani shows great skill in presenting Ahmad’s brief contacts with Noemi, the girl’s openness contrasting with the cart-operator’s wounded reserve. It is the opposite of a Hollywood-style relationship, as tentative as the ineffective way in which Ahmad takes a stray cat home and tries to care for it.

Mr. Bahrani acknowledges the influence of French filmmaker Robert Bresson in his emphasis on natural sounds and the use of non-actors, and refuses to contrive a happy ending for his lonely hero. Reportedly he made his movie in only three weeks; fortunately, he is already working on a new one.

Coincidentally, this year’s Robert Bresson Award, presented by Archbishop John Foley, director of the Pontifical Council for Culture and Social Communication, was given to Zhang Yuan, the Chinese director of “Little Red Flowers,” “Seventeen Years” and “Behind the Forbidden City.” Receiving the award at the Venice Film Festival, Zhang paid tribute to the Vatican and said he hoped his award would prove to be “a first brick of a bridge that unites both cultures.”

Joseph Cunneen is NCR regular movie critic. His e-mail is

National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2006

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