Sometimes a film comes along that is not only entertaining but illuminating beyond the expectations of the viewer; such is the case with Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, which takes us on a fantastical journey but also leaves us with profound and lasting impressions about our place in the universe. The ending may also leave you with more questions than answers, but sometimes that is infinitely more satisfying than the majority of predictable movies out there.
The story is told in flashback by the adult Pi (Irraf Khan) who relates the tale to a Canadian writer (Rafe Spall) who wants to use Pi’s tale for a book. Pi is very philosophical about his experience, and he tells the writer that if he listens to the story he will “believe in God.”
The first thing one has to get past is the fact that the second most important character in the film – an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (so named by a confused ticket clerk in a train station) – is a CGI wonder that is amazingly conceived. If you dismiss this truth as part of the fictional world Lee creates in the film, and you accept the tiger as a reality on that boat, then you are in for a rare and precious cinematic treat.
Pi (played by Suraj Sharma for the most extended flashback part of the film) is a 16 year old boy who is on a passage to Canada from India aboard a Japanese owned vessel. He is with his parents and brother and they are on their way to a new life. With them are some of their remaining zoo animals. Pi’s father was forced to sell his zoo because of problems with the government, and Pi is at first unhappy about leaving India and all that he has ever known.
We learn that Pi was named Piscine Molitor Patel after a swimming pool his father liked in Paris. The name causes the young Pi (Ayush Tandon) trouble in school, with his classmates calling him “Pissing Patel,” until he earns their respect by explaining his name is “Pi” like the numerical term (which goes on infinitely). After this he is known as simply Pi, but the fact that his name connects to water is apropos considering his destiny.
When he is small he tries to feed the tiger in the cage, but his father admonishes him and then brings in a goat for the tiger to slaughter. He forces his young son to see this in order that he has no illusions about the nature of the beast. Pi insists that he saw a soul in the tiger’s eyes, but his father contends that it is just a reflection back of him and nothing more.
The young Pi learns about Christianity and Islam and wishes to practice them along with his Hindu faith. This sets up the premise that God is not defined by one thing or name, but rather accessible to all people on their own terms. Pi’s seeking God, Vishnu, or Allah is more a journey of wanting to connect to the universe, and he will use whatever means he can to attain his goal.
Once out to sea on the freighter, a fierce storm hits the ship and causes it to go down. Pi survives on a life boat with an injured zebra and an orangutan. He soon learns that a fierce hyena is hiding under the tarpaulin and the hyena is kept at bay with an oar. The hyena eventually kills the zebra and the orangutan, but is then killed and eaten by Richard Parker (the tiger was also hiding under the tarp). Thus begins what will be a relationship that is filled with adversity. The tiger’s ferocity is at first kept in check by Pi as he retreats to a raft that he fashions out of flotation devices. He goes back and forth between this makeshift raft and the boat, feeding and watering the tiger, and slowly creating some kind of bond with it.
They get through terrible storms, circling sharks, and near starvation until they come upon a fantastical island filled with meerkats. Here Pi drinks water and eats fruits of the land, while the tiger feasts on the teaming population. At night as Pi sleeps in a tree he becomes aware of the phosphorescent quality of the island, with its glowing flora and fauna and realizes that the whole island is carnivorous, thus he has no choice but to once again head back to sea.
Obviously, since the adult Pi is telling the tale, we know he survives, but this is the same trope used in many films including Titanic, where the elderly Rose Dawson tells what happened to the doomed ship. Sometimes knowing the ending does nothing to diminish the power of a film because getting there is what it’s all about.
Life of Pi is sort of the fiercely independent child of Castaway and Slumdog Millionaire, but that does not do justice to the phenomenal story. As Pi and Richard Parker form a relationship, there is a sense that the universe Pi has been looking to for answers has been minimized and sent to him inside that small boat. The connection between man and beast becomes not just one necessary for survival but is a deeper connection, one of their souls. You don’t have to be religious to like this film, and it does not pound home a pious message of any kind, but rather leaves it to our own hearts and minds to determine.
Lee is nominated for Best Director and the film for Best Picture, but I am doubtful for a victory in either category. David Magee is nominated for adapted screenplay (from the novel by Yann Martel), as is Claudio Miranda for cinematography Mychael Danna for the original score, both of whom should win if there is any justice. The visual tapestry of this film is greatly complimented by the haunting score that sets the tone for this fantastical adventure.
Life of Pi should be seen on the movie screen to fully appreciate its majesty in 3-D, but in the end it is the story that matters most. When you get to the twist ending, it is up to you to make a decision as to what to believe. If you are like me you will find the choice not hard at all, as long as you’re willing to take a leap of faith. As the adult Pi told the writer about believing in God, it’s all a choice. Either way Life of Pi should be savored as one fine film that will leave you thinking long after you have left the theater.
Photo Credits: 20th Century Fox