Life of Pi (PG). Director: Ang Lee. Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall. 127 minutes
Life of Pi offers two stories. Both concern a boy who survives a shipwreck and spends months adrift in a lifeboat. One is constructed from mundane albeit horrific facts; the other, from visual and mystical wonders, scenes of terror and transcendence that seek no less than to better understand God. The teller of these stories, Pi (Khan), the shipwrecked boy now a man, asks the listener to choose. One story might be true. The other concerns Truth.
It is the more mystical account that forms the bulk of Yann Martel's 2001 novel and now, Ang Lee's wondrous cinematic adaptation of it. The young Pi's (Sharma) travelling companions on the boat include a hobbled zebra, bereaved orangutan, sinister hyena, and a majestic but deadly Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. These animals are the remnants of a zoo owned by Pi's father who, with Pi's mother and elder brother, went down with the ship.
The food chain asserts itself, and soon Pi and Parker are the sole survivors. The perilous beast and imperiled boy gradually learn to share this space. In Pi's childhood his father warned him animals have no soul; that any depth Pi might see in the tiger's eyes is merely a reflection of his own humanity. This is true enough: gazing upon and living alongside Richard Parker enhances Pi's sense of wonder at God's creation, his compassion, and will to live.
Life of Pi's greatest attribute is its visual design. Lee's films are notable for their visual grandeur and sense of nature as beautiful, vast and dangerous. Here he has created, with cinematographer Claudio Miranda, imagery that far transcends the limited possibilities suggested by 'boy in a boat'. The ocean alone is richly black and full of reflected stars; radiant turquoise and awash with luminescent jellyfish; or whipped to a towering grey frenzy.
Pi is a religious pilgrim, in the lifelong sense. During the first part of the film he relates the childhood experiences that led him, to the chagrin of his rational father and sensible mother, to embrace not only Hinduism, but also Christianity and Islam, with the studiousness of a wise and curious child. Where these faith traditions offer Pi complementary ways of knowing God, his experiences on the lifeboat test and temper that faith foundation.
The storytelling theme is encapsulated by a framing narrative, in which the now adult Pi presents his fantastic account to a Canadian novellist (Spall). This device allows the filmmakers to occasionally step back from the shipwreck narrative to offer exposition. Usually this is seamless, the adult Pi's narration so nicely written and elegantly delivered by Khan that when Pi's journey resumes, we are easily drawn back into the story.
But Lee seems at times too enamoured to the act of storytelling itself. The first part of the film contains accounts of Pi's resourceful method for neutralising school bullies; the sadistic swimming lessons he endured from a friend of his father's; and a brief romance between Pi and a young dancer. These are charming enough, and do help establish character, but ultimately do not resonate in Pi's journey the way his youthful religious excursions do.
After the shipwreck — realised here in terrifying scale and detail — the film's grip might tighten or slacken, but it never relents. Among its visual and metaphysical highlights are a hallucinatory trip by Pi to the depths of the ocean; Pi and Richard Parker's sedate but eerie visit to an island of carnivorous algae; and a hysterical Pi dancing in the face of another deadly storm sent by God to reveal himself. (Biblically speaking, Pi is part Noah, part Job.)
All of which is in stark contrast to the other story, offered by Pi in the film's closing moments with the purpose of providing a version of events that it easier to believe. But believing is not the point. Pi's story (and specifically Lee's cinematic telling of it) is, both visually and thematically, an immersive experience. Plunge into its depths.
Tim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.