Or, Piscine's Wager
AS ALWAYS: SPOILERS!!!
The first time that Ang Lee's Life of Pi truly seized my attention, it's protagonist was skittering across the wind and rain-swept of cargo freighter, shouting to the turbulent heavens like some underage, subaltern Lear. However, what Piscine Molitor Patel - named for a Parisian swimming pool - sees as God putting on a show is nevertheless deadly: we watch as, on the cargo deck below, we an unknown, faceless sailor is swept overboard by the invading sea. From this point on, everything changes for the eponymous Pi and for the audience.
The film opens innocuously enough with a middle-aged Pi, played by Irrfan Khan, being paid a visit by author and plot device Rafe Spall. He's heard that the Indian expatriate, now living in French Canada, has a remarkable story to tell. Thus begins our introduction to how our protagonist came to spend 227 days trapped on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal Tiger for company. This framing device, not in the original Booker Prize winning novel by Yann Martel, provides us an extra degree of perspective, with sufficient time having passed for Pi to have assessed the events he has undergone and come to terms with them. The story Khan's Pi tells is not one of tragedy and trauma, though it contains both, but of a religious awakening.
It's the voice of the older Pi who guides us through his early years in Pondicherry, India, as the second son of zookeeper and his wife - from the circumstances of his naming to the means by which he came by the nickname Pi (give you a hint: there is a mathematical root). Young Pi is shown to be naive, precocious, hopelessly inquisitive, all the traits you want in a protagonist at the start of a Bilgungsroman, and the place in which he lives, a place of great beauty - 'The French Riviera of the Eastern subcontinent'.
Director Ang Lee and writer David Magee, who adapted Martel's work, present India as both spiritually and culturally vibrant. This is not, however, Slumdog Millionaire - regardless of your opinions on the quality of the piece as Best Picture winner - and issues of poverty and sectarian violence go unaddressed. This is more akin to the India of Eat, Pray, Love or Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, though it never seeks to commercialize or patronize the East in the way that either of those films do. Life of Pi is more concerned with the grand questions of Life as opposed to the hard facts of living - this is a work of magical realism in the vein of Salman Rushdie or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, though without the political considerations, and the Canadian Martel, American Magee, and Taiwanese Lee make a remarkably good of of it.
Rafe Spall’s earnest novelist claims to have been told that Pi’s story is one to make you believe in God; Pi himself never confirms nor denies this, but lets the story speak for itself. After the ship carrying Pi’s family – and crucially their zoo – to Canada sinks beneath the waves, Pi finds himself trapped on a life raft, first with a chimpanzee, a hyena, and a wounded zebra, and finally with Richard Parker, an adult Bengal tiger. It’s a minor miracle that these CG creations are never less than fully convincing: Richard Parker, who serves as Pi’s sole companion for most of his journey, is a living, breathing creation up there with Gollum from Lord of the Rings. The film itself is rich, beautiful, vibrant, organic – a handful of adjectives that do little to describe the film’s visual triumph. Suffice it to say, you will not see/have seen a more majestic film this year than Life of Pi.
As the film addresses it, however, beauty, and also majesty, are dangerous things. Blake’s famous poem may capture the former, but it cannot address the deadliness of the beast. Just as Pi’s father forced him, as a boy, to observe Richard Parker slaughtering a goat in order to gain an appreciation for the danger of the beast, so the film, like the book, forces you to confront a very peculiar issue, one perhaps not tackled in world philosophy since Pythagoras: do animals have souls?
From the moment at which the Japanese freighter Tsmitsum disappears under the sea, all lights on, all hands onboard save one, Pi finds himself at the mercy of the waves and the thrall of the wild. To return briefly to the ship, as may become relevant later, Gerard Depardieu has a supporting role, more of a cameo even, as the ship’s cook, unsympathetic to the plight of vegetarians aboard the ship. An essentially one note humorous role takes on additional undertones given the actor’s recent appearances in the press. Life of Pi is whimsical, bit never saccharine, which, with Pi essentially serving as a bargain basement Noah, is a careful balancing act, with scenes of fish-out-of-water comedy (or certain-animals-that-shouldn’t-be-put-together-in-a-lifeboat-put-together-in-a-lifeboat comedy) tempered with the inevitable violence such a situation precludes.
Pi’s father claims that we as humans project our own emotions upon animals, our own morality; with the hyena behaving as an utter bastard, the audience should quickly come to understand the dilemma in which Pi finds himself, the need to believe that Richard Parker is human, relatable, versus the need to be wary of him, to stay alive. As such, Parker serves, in part, as a far more deadly Wilson.
Life of Pi’s net contains full and varied range of emotions – from joy to terror to despair – and newcomer Suraj Sharma captures them all marvelously. Despite his courage and his ingenuity, Pi remains, essentially, a blank canvas onto which the viewer can project themselves. When Pi looks into the tiger’s eyes and sees himself, we feel the same way – but, of course, there is a twist in the tale. (Note to self: Tale? Tail? No, no, don’t. Just leave it.)
The film deals with the routine of life at sea. Lee plays some ingenious tricks with the water, from the famous Piscine Molitor in which the water is so clear we don’t even realize we are looking through it till a swimmer passes above us, to a becalmed Pacific in which, mirror-like, it appears that Pi and his raft are floating on sky. Despite the film’s frequent lulls, the moments of quiet reflection or simple activity, it’s too bizarre to ever be boring: learning to fish become suspenseful when it’s a matter of stopping a tiger from paddling across a brief span of water and eating you. When Richard Parker is wet and miserable, it’s easy to feel sorry for him; just as when Pi, a vegetarian, is forced to kill a big-eyed shiny fish, we feel the cost it has on his soul.
It’s easy to make fun of the pseudo-profundity, but the film never lets us forget that beauty comes with danger. When the bioluminescent whale featured so heavily in the trailers breaks from the water, the film reminds us of it’s depths – when the whale dives, it swamps Pi’s boat, costing him almost all his remaining rations. Life of Pi has a mainly episodic narrative – from the flying fish that batter the boat to Richard Parker’s snarling desperation in a storm. In fact, the film’s structure perhaps bears most similarity to, say, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’: a series of improbable events that reflect on the times in which the hero lives. But while in Swift’s book this was satire, here it’s magical realism. As such, the eventual arrival of land can’t help but be anticlimactic.
The film calls upon the audience to surrender itself to it, just as Pi believes the universe, that God, is calling on him to surrender. Life of Pi is unabashedly pro religion, or at least pro God. Even when we’re presented with the final twist, as Pi recounts to two insurance agents concerned with the sinking of the ship the “true story” of what may or may not have happened – which I won’t spoil here – Pi gives us the option of which story to believe in. Believing in God, it seems to suggest, is a choice between rationalization and faith – Piscine’s wager if you will.
Through Pi’s journey with Richard Parker, he believes that he comes to understand God. Pi says to the tiger early on in their journey, “If we are going to live together, we have to learn to communicate”, and this sums up Life of Pi nicely. The alternate story Pi posits is unsatisfying, coming as it does at the 11th hour, and seeks to reduce the extraordinariness of all that has preceded it to mundane brutality. Rationalism/reality may well be technically in the right, but it provides for a far less interesting story than faith/fantasy.
VERDICT: The animals are a marvel, the visuals astounding - Life of Pi is itself a minor miracle. A faithful adaptation of the book and highly enjoyable trip to the cinema. If you fancy seeing something life affirming this holiday and don't fancy the biographical rigors of The Impossible, this is probably your best bet.