Published on: January 31, 2013
If you haven’t read Yann Martel’s novel (as I still, unfortunately, have not), you may not realize before seeing the movie that Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a religious experience. Yes, the tiger is ferocious and looks real, and there’s a whale, and a bunch of Indian people light things up and send them out to sea at some point. If those are the only reasons for which you go to see it, I daresay you shan’t be disappointed. However, the true purpose of the story is to pose to us the questions that befuddled our protagonist in his youth, and ultimately to make us realize that coming to solid conclusions is not the most important thing in life.
Piscine Molitor Patel is a middle-aged Indian man now living in Canada. One day, a novelist (Rafe Spall) shows up at his house, asking to hear a story that, according to Piscine’s uncle back in India, would make the listener believe in God. Piscine explains that all he can do is tell his story, and that the novelist can make his own judgments about God.
He begins his tale, shown to us in flashback, by describing his childhood. We see him being raised in Pondicherry, a former French colony in India, where his family owns and operates a zoo. Growing up, Piscine Molitor (named after a famous swimming pool in Paris) is mocked for his name, and rechristened “Pissing Patel” by his immature schoolmates. He manages to cleverly get rid of his despised nickname by demanding, through demonstration of prodigious math skills, to be known as “Pi.”
As he gets older, Pi explores various religions, including Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, choosing to accept all of them equally instead of deciding on a single path to understanding. When he gets to be about 16, the political climate in India is such that Pi’s family decides it is time to move abroad. They are intending to cross the Pacific to Canada, but the ship floods and sinks on the way. Everyone on the ship except for Pi drowns, and he is left alone to try to survive on a lifeboat with a grown Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Pi’s adventures cause both him and the audience to reexamine the idea of faith.
Ang Lee demonstrates with Life of Pi that he is as capable a director as ever. If you have seen any of his other movies, particularly Brokeback Mountain, you will know that directing actors is his strong suit. Here, as always, his players speak and act with precision and, even in darker moments, undeniable charm. A standout is Irrfan Khan, who plays Pi as an adult. Khan gives his character a sort of Albus Dumbledore-esque quality; wise, professorial, always one step ahead, yet maintaining a vibrant sense of humor and a youthful twinkle in his eye. He feels his story in his bones, stands by it and impresses his passion profoundly upon Rafe Spall’s writer character and thus the audience.
Regrettably, I remained woefully ignorant of Life of Pi’s plot when I went in to see it, due both to my aforementioned failure to read the novel first and to the misleading nature of the trailer. I had assumed (as had many others with whom I talked about the film beforehand) that it would be a study in razzle-dazzle – that its merits, if it had any, would stem solely from the pretty computer-generated landscapes featured in the previews. There is nothing quite so wonderful to a reviewer as going in with low expectations and being proved wrong. Life of Pi is as plot-driven a movie as any other Academy Award nominee this year. The fact that it features stunningly brilliant, colorful visuals does not distract from its message; rather, we get an added dimension, a physical manifestation of the wonders of the plot and characters. That is how a blockbuster movie should use its special effects.
I feel, though, that as wonderful as Life of Pi is, a serious warning is in order before I advise everybody to run out and see it. Despite its PG rating, the film is not at all for young children. I often express opposition to the criteria the MPAA uses to make decisions under the current ratings system, and here I feel the need to speak out again. In this case, a PG-13 would undoubtedly be more appropriate. There is not only extreme implied violence, with animals killing and even eating one another, but the themes at play, such as belief in both monotheistic and polytheistic religions and the deep connections between all living things, will go over the heads of younger viewers. Plus, every element of the mise-en-scene is devoted to the ultimate nebulousness of the story’s point, an ambiguity that may not sit well with some viewers. It will make sense if you have watched the movie attentively and with an open mind, but children often have a difficult time with that.
If you do understand what you are getting into, and wish to have a visually stimulating, emotionally profound and, most importantly, truly transcendental experience at the movies, then Life of Pi is for you. It has been out in wide release for over two months now, and will therefore be leaving soon if it doesn’t win major awards at the Oscars. Don’t miss your chance.