Ang Lee's movie version of "Life of Pi" is an extraordinary achievement. Like "The Lord of the Rings" or "The Road", two very different movies made from overwhelmingly well-lauded books, Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" flies in the face of those who at one time might have said that "it couldn't be done, and if it was done, it wouldn't be done well". Lee accomplishes not only a fine and sensitive adaption of Yann Martel's now classic novel, he has fashioned a work of art that stands rock-solidly on it's own merits of cinematic mastery. For the movie exists as a profound statement affirming the indomitability of the human spirit, expressed in an artistic form that is stunningly beautiful, brilliantly edited, meticulously performed, almost metaphysically imagined and very deeply affecting. Both times I saw this in theatres I went away profoundly moved and highly stimulated intellectually, for "Life of Pi" is not JUST the story of an Indian boy in a lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker, a Zebra, a Hyena and an Orangutan called "Orange Juice". It is a daring and unflinching look at questions that today we dare not talk about, or are actually embarrassed to talk about - those mostly being around the question of the existence of God ( or Gods ) and whether Reason triumphs over Faith. ( As if one must exist without the other! ). Martel's multi-layered narrative that presents a story and then questions that story digs far more deeply into some big questions than a cursory or reactionary judgement of it might suggest. Lee makes sure that all those levels are clearly discernible for those with the courage to look and see. This is a film that will move you very deeply and have you thinking for many days afterward.
Of course the story does not take place entirely on the lifeboat, even though it is the main body of the piece. It begins in Pondicherry, a one time French colonial town on the southeast coast of India, in Tamil Nadu state. As the film opens to bucolic shots of birds and animals in a very Eden-like setting we begin to hear a narrator, who turns out to be the older Pi ( Irrfan Khan ), many years later, recounting his life as a child in the town to a young writer sent to interview him. It is idyllic and untroubled and Pi himself recounts the rather eccentric story of how he got his unusual name. His father, a stark and ultra-rational man of science and reason, thinking himself a member of the "New India", has withdrawn from his traditional Hindu faith in favour of Reason and Science. He is somewhat exasperated with his precocious son Pi, who seems to ignore his father's remonstrations and outright rantings against his son's all-consuming need to explore all the religions his life exposes him too - Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. Pi sees no reason why he can't be an adherent of all of them simultaneously. He seems lost in his dreamy ways and has one foot in this world and the other in a somewhat more metaphysical plane. He seems tied to this world by a very thin thread, but yet, the naive, "irrational" boy may yet be on to something.
Pi's innocence, and even outright dangerous naivete, comes to a head when he seeks to hand feed the Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker that is the feature of his father's landmark zoo. Named so because of a clerical error, Richard Parker comes hair-raisingly close to the boy who is holding out a large piece of raw meat through the bars of the big cat's enclosure. Pi believes that all "animals have souls, I have seen it in their eyes" and he wants to reach Richard Parker's. The boy is rescued by his enraged father at the last second just before the tiger pounces. The father then subjects Pi and the rest of the family to an object lesson on the brute, instinct of animals in order to shock the boy into a realization that is important to his survival. It is amazing how frightened a 450 pound Bengal Tiger is of Pi's father. The incident both wakes Pi up, but it also drives some of his convictions even deeper. This, in turn sets up the precedents for the events of the main body of the story.
Not wanting to include any spoilers in this review I will say that the family has to leave India with the animals and head to Canada via the Pacific Ocean on a gigantic Japanese freighter. A tragedy strikes and Pi by chance ends up surviving by ending up in an ocean lifeboat with what he thinks is his sole companion, a zebra who broke it's leg diving into the boat in order to save itself. As his boat boat is tossed on the waves of the stormy, roiling Pacific Pi sees the figure of someone else struggling in the water, trying to get to the boat. Pi extends an oar only find out it is none other than Richard Parker, the tiger, and it is too late before the big cat is literally tossed into the boat by the gigantic waves.
What follows is extraordinary. Pi's dreamy life is ripped away from him but he still manages to find meaning in his situation - trapped on a lifeboat with a helpless zebra and a Bengal tiger. The character of Pi is shown at 3 stages of his life, as a small boy, as a middle-aged man, but mostly as the young man in the boat. Suraj Sharma, in his brilliant first role, delivers an astoundingly realistic and deeply affecting performance. It is a solo performance upon which the entire sympathy and believability of the story relies and he pulls off a completely convincing range of emotions with perfect aplomb. Things happen and the animals do what animals will do, much to Pi's dismay and danger. He nevertheless works out ways to stay tethered to the boat, by building an attached raft out of supplies. Now the long, complex, harrowing and very moving relationship between Pi and Richard Parker begins. The tiger is a tiger and behaves no less than one. Pi, however recognizes that in order to stay alive he has to build a relationship of sorts with the cat and keep the beast from going after him for food. It is NOT easy. Pi's spirit is resolute and he keeps himself busy with the survival manual and feeding Richard Parker, who is not at all pleased with Pi's presence.
What might seem a monotonous prospect, a boy on a lifeboat, lost on the Pacific Ocean, becomes a riveting story both magical and brutal. This long segment is where Lee's cinematographic vision takes full flight. The Pacific, at one point, becomes eerily flat in a dead calm that stretches to infinity. Lee often shoots the boat from very high above, looking straight down on it from a good 50 - 60 feet above it. With the water absolutely motionless it becomes a flawless mirror of the sky and Pi's boat and raft appear to be floating upside down ( or, 'downside up' ) in an infinity of orange and yellow clouds. Reality's defined "ups" and "downs" are discarded and we begin to see that as a metaphor for Pi's mental state as he spends days, weeks, months adrift on the ocean. Metaphors abound. Later Pi begins to work on subduing the tiger's wildness by using the animal's sea-sickness against it. To a degree Pi is able to re-inhabit the boat after this and he and Richard Parker begin a pas de deux, an olympian struggle of souls, that leads to a form of 'truce' between them. When Pi saves Richard Parker's life when it would have been in his best interest to kill the tiger or let it die, things change. It is one of the most powerful moments in the entire film, the full-circle realization of Pi's childhood conviction that "animals have souls - I have seen it in their eyes". Pi realizes that he actually needs the tiger, that it gives him purpose and reason to live. His powerful and dangerous presence keeps Pi focused and drives his will to live. Richard Parker also becomes resigned to his tormentor and they keep their respective, and respectful, distances. From here the story gently, subtly crosses the line into more metaphysical territory.
Like the cloud scene above there is another such event that follows in the uneasy relationship that Pi and Richard Parker have and it occurs at night. It is the deep, oceanically profound still point, the HEART, the most inconceivably mystical part of the film. Pi awakens to see Richard Parker with his back to him quietly staring out to sea. The moon is out and the water is lit with phospherescent plankton and jellyfish. The air and the water are calm. Pi asks Richard Parker, "what are you looking at? what do you see? tell me". The tiger is still for moment then turns its head to the side, looking over the boat into the water. Pi turns his head to see and the deep becomes alive with living phosphorescence and swimming forms. As he continues to look the images become more magical and Pi sees visions of many things, including his mother who appears more as a goddess in this amazing sequence. Another shot from very high above, looking down at Pi and Richard Parker looking into the depths of the ocean with the cosmos above them also reflected in the water, takes us now into the great Universal. Pi and Richard Parker, in their lifeboat, look like a constellation in the firmament. Pi snaps out of his vision only to see that the tiger has turned completely around to face him but is perfectly still, yet looking at him with extreme interest. Pi looks back at Richard Parker quietly and the two seem to see into each other like never before. Is he finally vindicated here, having believed as a child that his human soul could connect with an animal soul? Is Richard Parker thinking of eating Pi, or, is this the final moment when the human boy and the Bengal tiger share in a vision of eternity, something beyond their individualities and natures and realize their individual selves as expressions of one life? For me, it is the most profound moment of the entire film.
The story continues a bit more, sealing and strengthening, after that vision, the relationship between Pi and Richard Parker. Read more ›