Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Life Of Pi: A Review (Review #502)


The Lives of A Bengal Tiger...

Having skipped reading Life of Pi, I cannot say how close or far the film version is to the book.  I do understand that it was suppose to be unfilmable, yet here we have a film version of it.  It is a credit to both screenwriter David Magee (adapting Yann Martel's novel) and director Ang Lee that Life of Pi was made at all, and was made into a remarkably coherent story that holds your attention throughout its running time.  The simply remarkable visuals only enhance the story to where it becomes a splendid and splendid-looking film.  Granted, it might be a bit mystical for my tastes, but Life of Pi might be, given from what I've heard from those who have read the novel, actually better than its source material.     

The majority of Life of Pi is told in flashback, as Pi (Irrfan Khan) tells his extraordinary story to a writer (Rafe Spall) who had been told to contact Pi in Canada by Pi's uncle.  Pi now spins his tale. 

His full name is Piscine Molitor Patel, named after the most beautiful swimming pool in all the world.  Of course, his Indian classmates might miss the meaning of Piscine and just hear "pissing", which pleases him none.  Thus, he becomes Pi, taking on the mantle of genius who can give you the numbers that make up the 3.14 combination.  His family has been running a zoo but the local government has opted to now close it.  Pi's father decides that the best thing to do is to sell the animals (which belong to the family, not the government) and start a new life in Canada.  Hence the teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma), along with his parents and brother, set sail from India.

Over the Marinara Trench, a massive storm sinks the ship and kills everyone on board.  In the chaos of the storm however, Pi is thrown into a lifeboat where he finds himself with a zebra, an orangutan that rowed his way to the boat, then we discover hidden inside the tarp a laughing hyena and at the end, a tiger named Richard Parker.  The hyena had at first killed and eaten the wounded zebra and orangutan, but then Richard Parker had come and killed the hyena.  Pi manages to form a smaller raft and keep at a distance from Richard Parker, who is still dangerous despite Pi's previous efforts to befriend him.

Using the supplies inside the boat, Pi manages to live and eat, chronicling his time and keeping away from Richard Parker.  Despite this, he won't allow Richard Parker to drown when he attempts to catch fish on his own.  While Richard Parker still stays on the boat, Pi has managed to gain some control over the tiger.  There is a brief respite on an undiscovered island, and at first it looks like Pi and Richard Parker have found refuge.  However, at night the island becomes carnivorous and Pi leaves the next morning, taking supplies and calling Richard Parker to the boat.

Eventually they land after 227 days adrift on the shores of Mexico.  Richard Parker goes into the jungle without looking back at his travelling companion, which upsets Pi tremendously.  The Japanese insurance agents refuse to believe his fantastic tale, so he tells them another.  In this version, there were four people: a sailor with a broken leg, his mother, a vicious cook (the legendary "Russian" actor Gerard Depardieu), and Pi himself.  The cook had used the sailor as bait to get fish, then had killed Pi's mother during a fight.  Pi himself had later killed the cook.

Now the adult Pi, reflecting on his time, asks the writer which version does he believe.  After a pause, he opts for the Tiger Tale.  Pi merely comments that it is the same way with God, which is why Pi (who as a child considered himself a devout Hindu, Christian, and Muslim all at once) can believe in God despite his travails.  In the end, the writer looks at the insurance report, to find they have accepted Pi's original version.

Life of Pi has some of the most spectacular images that the 3-D enhances rather than intrudes on the story.  I think it is because Lee, like Martin Scorsese with Hugo, uses the 3-D to serve the story rather than to just have things thrown at you for a momentary thrill.  In particular is when Richard Parker first appears: the lunging action and sudden appearance jars one into rapid attention. 

Also well-filmed was the actual massive storm that caused the ship to sink, making it both a terrifying and oddly beautiful sequence.  Claudio Miranda's cinematography has a powerful, magical, and mystical impact on the audience.  One sequence in particular is when Pi finds himself utterly alone, and the ocean looks as if he is floating in space, with all the fish as stars.  The imagery of Life of Pi is worth admiring like a work of art.

In terms of performances I am glad that Lee decided to keep Khan and Spall to a minimum.  By no means do I mean to imply that they gave bad performances: both were quite good as the adult Pi and the Writer respectively.  It is instead that I am not particularly fond of having the 'present' story cut in when the flashbacks work so well.  Fortunately, the editing by Tim Squyres has the present and flashback stories flow well that they never intrude or appear forced in.

The real revelations are Sharma and his companion.  Let me explain.  Sharma in his screen debut gives a fantastic performance (a credit to both him and Lee's directing).  Sharma goes through all the emotions capable of a young man: the first stirrings of love, the frustrations with his atheist father, the loss of the mother and brother he so loved, the joys of discovery, the fears of death, to find that in the end he has come to accept the power of God (however he defines Him to be).  Whether or not the fantastic story was real or just something he created as allegory to get through his difficult situation the film leaves for one to decide (and it brings to mind the conclusion of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend), but Sharma never hits a false note of a young man trying to survive.

In regards to Richard Parker, immense credit must go to the special effects.  One almost never doubts that it is a REAL tiger aboard the lifeboat, even though logically one should accept that there has to be some CGI involved.  It's so well-done that all the animals are almost always accepted as being real rather than computer-generated (although I do say 'almost' because one could imagine a whale not being real...looking more like those from Fantasia 2000, but I digress).

All these elements, tied in with Mychael Danna's haunting score, make Life of Pi a wonderful, magical, dare I say mystical film.

If I were to fault anything in Life of Pi, it is that perhaps it's a little TOO mystical for my own tastes.  Furthermore, while one can read great symbolism into it (how we ourselves are animals but that belief will bring us out of the storm), I don't feel able to endorse what I took to be a pantheistic view of faith that Pi so quickly adopts.  Pi takes his mother's devout Hinduism to heart, then discovers Christianity and prays to Jesus, before being enchanted by the call to prayer in a mosque and taking to turning to Mecca.  He thanks Vishnu for leading him to Christ, who in turn brought him to Allah.  Pi doesn't see a conflict between being a faithful Hindu, Christian, and Muslim all at once, and perhaps this 'all faith is good so let's make it all one faith' doesn't sit well with me.  "Faith is a house with many doors, with doubt on every floor," Pi tells the Writer.  I don't know if I can fully endorse such a worldview, or at least be ready to do so.

I certainly accept that one who doubts is not one who has no faith, but whether having faith in everything is good or bad is up to the individual.  For myself, I can say that faith is important, doubt is necessary to solidify a faith, but that I cannot find myself praying to three deities and expect them all to agree. 

However, that I don't accept the polytheism Life of Pi appears to be signaling doesn't mean that I thought Life of Pi (or faith in general) is not worth investing in.  It is a beautifully acted, beautifully filmed picture, one that stays with you, leaving one to ask questions or enjoy for its own sake.  Whether one draws great lessons from it or not is up to the viewer, but the viewer will be highly rewarded for his or her search.



1 comment:

  1. I have a few issues with this one, some more major than others, but you write so thoughtful on it I'm intrigued to see what I'll think whenever I see it next.

    Technically, though, it is a marvel. I have to disagree on Sharma, I don't know if it was him or the script but I never felt invested in Pi as a lead character. The film's technical merits kept me wondering what would happen, but when the end nears I keep realising that I really don't care whether or not he gets off that boat.


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