Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a triumph. Adapted from Yann Martel’s novel, it was widely considered to be unfilmable, but here it is. It is a living, breathing film that is a beautiful thing to behold. Drawing on many different myths and religions, Life of Pi doesn’t just recount the stories of Christ, Buddha, and the Upanishads; it visually embodies them. The master of comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell, was paraphrasing Freud when he wrote, “Dreams are private myths, myths are public dreams.” So it is with stories and cinema. Life of Pi is its own myth.
Pi (Irrfan Khan) is a grown man living a happy and peaceful life in Canada with his wife and family. One day, a writer (Rafe Spall) visits him because he has been told that Pi has a story so profound that if one believes in the story, one will believe in God. The writer is skeptical, but so are most who seek knowledge from Gurus. Over a meal, Pi recounts his life as a child and his most fantastic adventure, where he spent 227 days shipwrecked in a lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Pi’s story begins in the French quarter of India when he was a young boy, then known as Piscine Patel (Gautam Belur). Named after a swimming pool in Paris that his father loved, the kids turn to call him “Pissing Patel” while snickering. Pi knows he has to take control of the situation and change it. He starts to call himself Pi, the mathematical number used to figure the circumference of a circle and displays his uncanny ability to recount the proper sequence of π, an unending number. If π has no end, Pi, too, displays a limitless quality, a circle whose circumference is nowhere and center is everywhere.
Pi is the son of a zookeeper and develops a love and curiosity for the animals. The Bengal tiger, Richard Parker, is brought to the zoo and Pi’s curiosity gets the better of him. Pi offers a chunk of meat to Richard Parker to see how the tiger will react, and the scene plays out slowly and methodically. It is as if Pi and Richard Parker will share a special connection, Pi being the compassionate caretaker, Richard Parker being the domesticated pet. Pi’s father (Adil Hussain) arrives in the nick of time to save Pi from injury. He is furious that Pi would be so foolish as to think that a tiger is anything but a killing machine. He chains a goat to Richard Parker’s cage and shows Pi the tiger’s true nature. Richard Parker makes quick work of the goat and drags it back to his den for a nice meal. There is no doubt that Richard Parker would have killed Pi, and it is an important lesson for both Pi and the audience. This isn’t a Disney film with talking animals that embody the same consciousness that humans do. These animals will behave according to their nature, and sadly, so will the humans of the story.
Pi also has a quest for knowledge and religion. Raised Hindu, Pi learns of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus and comes to love Him. Pi then picks up Islam, and it brings him understanding. His family teases him that he needs to pick one, but Pi doesn’t want to. He wants to love God, even if that means conflicting points of view. By holding these contradictions in his heart and mind allows him to see the beauty and grace of the world around him. Pi doesn’t know it yet, but the knowledge he gathers will become the tools that will help him survive the ordeals before him.
Now a teenager, Pi (Suraj Sharma) is uprooted from his home when his family decides to sell the zoo and move to Canada. Aboard the ship to Canada, a storm hits and sinks the ship. The sinking of the vessel is one of the most spectacular moments in recent cinema, and Lee uses 3-D to considerable effect here. Pi manages to make it to the lifeboat, as do some of the zoo animals that were being transported as well: a zebra with a broken leg, an orangutan, a hyena, and Richard Parker. The hyena makes life hell for everyone on the boat and eventually eats the zebra. Once the zebra is gone, the hyena goes after the orangutan. Now, it’s Pi’s turn, but Richard Parker takes down the hyena before Pi meets his fate. Life is an all-consuming fire. Now it’s just Pi and Richard Parker. Pi must be very careful about how he deals with Richard Parker because a mistake will cost him his life. Furthermore, Richard Parker is hopelessly out of his element. He doesn’t know that he needs Pi to survive, but he does. They can and will exist because of their contradictions.
Showing incredible resourcefulness, Pi constructs a second raft out of life jackets and oars and floats close to the lifeboat, which now is home to Richard Parker. Pi learns to collect rainwater for drinking, to fish, to co-exist with a tiger that is just waiting to consume him, and most importantly, to admire and wonder. Pi and Richard Parker spend 227 (22 divided by 7 is 3.14) days shipwrecked before they wash up on an island shore and are rescued. The bulk of the movie takes place on the lifeboat and is full of trials and encounters. Lee employs 3-D to not only enthrall the audience but to express the world that Pi and Richard Parker inhabit. One scene takes place at night with a clear sky speckled with a thousand stars. The water is still and reflects the stars like a mirror. In the middle of this orb of light floats a lifeboat, a man, and a tiger. It is hard to tell if we are looking down at Pi, Richard Parker, and the boat, or are we looking up through the sea? It doesn’t matter. Vishnu sleeps on the great cosmic sea that has no circumference and dreams the dream of the universe. This is a magical journey they are on, and they inhabit a world very different from ours.
There is much in Life of Pi that works like a Rorschach test. You will find within it themes and truths that you want to find. What to make of the island of meerkats? What did Pi learn there? How does one interpret the two stories Pi presents in the end? I personally feel that the film is about the ability to hold contradictions within your own heart and mind to explain the existence of life. One scene beautifully colors this for me, and it takes place aboard the lifeboat. Pi and Richard Parker have been out at sea for some time now, and Pi is worried that if he doesn’t find a way to feed Richard Parker, then Richard Parker will have his last with Pi. Pi himself is a vegetarian, and even though it is not stated why considering his love for religion and animals, he probably feels it a sin to kill to eat. This thought is not in his mind when he goes fishing, nor is it in his mind when he manages to catch a fish and then bludgeon it to death, but it is in his mind once he realizes what he has done. Pi must kill to save another and, in turn, himself. Pi thanks God for the fish, Richard Parker has himself a meal, and Pi lives to see another Tiger-food-free day.
It is easy to want to call Life of Pi more than a movie. In his review, Roger Ebert felt that the title should just be shortened to Life. He’s not far off, but Life of Pi is just a movie, but what it has to say is profound. To quote Joseph Campbell once more, “Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with the experience of being alive.” Much has been made in the past year about the death of cinema—too many sequels, comic book movies, remakes, etc. Even the critics bemoan the death of criticism. I won’t take argument with their claims here, but with Life of Pi, I feel that we are in a realm that The Tree of Life brought us last year and The Master did earlier this fall. Here are three movies that are really grasping at something. Something other than the usual experience. All three try to reconcile man versus God, man versus nature, man versus man. All three are trying desperately to express themselves. Maybe we are backsliding into a simple-minded culture, or maybe, just maybe, our grasp has reached the stars.
Life of Pi (2012)
Directed By: Ang Lee
Written By: David Magee adapted from the novel by Yann Martel
Produced By: Ang Lee, Gil Netter, David Womark
Starring: Surja Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Gautam Belur, Adil Hussain, Tabu, Rafe Spall, Gérard Depardieu
Fox 2000 Pictures, Running Time 127 minutes, Rated PG, Released November 21, 2012.