Movie Review: Life of Pi (2012)

Rudyard Kipling meets the Dalai Lama ____ 9/10
by Brian Wright

A remarkable experience, this film by Ang Lee. A significant cinematic achievement on several levels, three that I can think of immediately:

  1. the exploration of faith and spirituality as it develops in a freethinking Indian boy whose father is an advocate of reason
  2. an unusual, gripping adventure story that captures the imagination of young and old alike
  3. a technical marvel integrating spectacular computer-generated imagery (CGI) with live action seamlessly

And to top it all off, perhaps the most important quality lies in the story’s tug on the heartstrings as one puts oneself in the shoes of the protagonist at the end. The emotional scale is huge in this resolution, amplified by the fact that the viewer has been through the wringer of a 200+ day ordeal of survival at sea.

Ang Lee… Director
Yann Martel… Novel
David Magee… Screenplay

Suraj Sharma   … Pi Patel
Irrfan Khan     … Adult Pi Patel
Adil Hussain   … Santosh Patel
Tabu    … Gita Patel
Rafe Spall       … Writer
Bengal Tiger    … Richard Parker

As Roger Ebert points out in his review of the movie, one of his last, one could make a decent film out of the first half hour. It describes the life of young Pi, who has been named after his eccentric uncle’s favorite swimming pool, the Piscine Molitor in France. Pi is an imaginative kid. The other kids seize on his given name equating it with ‘pissing’ and cause him no end of grief until he announces in front of the teacher and everyone that from now on he will be known as Pi—giving a cute and learned dissertation on the irrational number 3.14xxx… the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. He’s also odd and brainy enough to have memorized the sequence of digits to enough places to fill several blackboards!

Pi’s elders are a unique and distinguished lot; his father runs a zoo in Pondicherry, India. More than most other children, Pi has a deep curiosity, especially about belief systems: first checking out Hinduism (fun fact: Hinduism has more than 33 million deities), Christianity (Pi tells the priest that it’s crazy that God would send this wholly virtuous and decent son to die for the sins of a bunch of ungrateful losers), and finally Islam. His parents are wholly understanding as Pi goes from one set of beliefs to another, even mixing and matching practices among them; he becomes a vegetarian.

His father, a productive and dedicated man of principle, has survived polio; he doesn’t think too much of the value or virtue of God when God enables such routine afflictions of humankind. Papa tries to bring Pi down to earth in several ways, for one thing simply asking why not simply accept reason and science into your life, dispensing with all these useless superstitions? Pi just wants to find a higher purpose, “to love God.” The father also tries to prepare his son for reality by dispensing with sentimentality regarding animals. One of the animals is a Bengal tiger, which because of a humorous clerical error is named Richard Parker.

Pi the youngster has this notion that the majestic carnivore is like a big Teddy bear and in one scene has come down to the cages with some chunks of meat to offer the beast between the bars. Papa discovers in time what his son is doing and proceeds to give Pi a valuable, dramatic lesson in just exactly what it means to be a large carnivore.

As a teen Pi continues on his quixotic ways, figuring out what he wants to be when he grows up, falling for a bright, pretty girl who likes him back. And then the heartbreaking news that the family cannot afford to stay in India managing the zoo; it will have to be shut down. Pa Patel has a deal with the owner that gives him rights to sell the animals. The family embarks with the creatures to North America on a shipping vessel… and runs into ‘trouble.’ Long and short: Pi in a freakish chain of events winds up in a lifeboat with a few of the animals, Richard Parker included. That doesn’t give too much of the movie away, especially since the movie jacket includes the image of a teenage Indian boy and a tiger out on the vast ocean.

Which is where the second part of the movie begins. It’s a doozie, too. The life situation here presents enormous challenges, not only to whether the boy will actually survive to become a man, but also to whether the open, benevolent sense of life of his childhood will make it through the travail. Then we witness a seemingly unending expanse of time and space serving as the stage for Pi’s relationship with Richard Parker; yes, Rudyard Kipling comes to mind, but even more so I think of the elemental stories of Jack London.

I found myself asking myself two questions through the second part of the film: 1) “What would I have done in such an environment at that age; would I have ever had the guts and brains to keep it together for days on end?” and 2) “How in the heck did they get this set of scenes on film?! How did Ang Lee and company manage to create these actions on screen?” My answer to the first question is, well, let’s just say I have to consider young Pi an epic hero. As for the second question, my DVD did not come with any extras that explained ‘the making of’ Life of Pi, which I regard as a major shortcoming.

And the ending. Great stuff.

I had read a newspaper interview with the Canadian-born author of the novel, Yann Martel. Fascinating person who is raised extremely secularly and, like Pi’s father, is fine with reason and science… to a point. Then Martel moves to India where human ‘life’ is so much more than successful technology, rather a big bowl of soup where people are immersed in the presence of all the other life forms, especially animals. India presents a wholly different feeling of what it means to be human and alive, one that the author comes to embrace more in his own life and work… such as Life of Pi.

“You only have a few minutes to live on Earth. In the meantime, to believe there’s some sort of transcendent reality—a spiritual essence we can realize—that we’re not simply the result of chemistry and we fulfill some purpose or destiny of our own volition… makes for a better life.” — Yann Martel

I think I paraphrased his quote generously. Candidly I watched the film partly in a quest for bigger clues to help me inform my own quest, and did not come away immediately with anything obvious. Except for the emotional kicker at the end having to do with relationships ending. But now that I sit and reflect—resolved to watch the movie again, soon, and to read the book—it occurs to me that what Yann and Lee have done so superlatively is distill nature’s immensity and power into an emotional portrait of incredible subtlety. If I sit still and alert, like a cat, it will probably come to me.

Don’t miss this unique and timeless work of art. It can make us glad and even look forward to the fact we’re human.

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