Life of Pi (2012)
Ang Lee, one of today’s most versatile filmmakers, has crafted another beautiful cinematic vision with Life of Pi. Based on the book of the same name by Canadian author Yann Martel, this 2012 film explores issues of spirituality and storytelling with the visual and poetic style that Lee uses so well. It takes material from the novel and brings it to life in a unique and wholly innovative fashion.
Martel’s book, an ambitious work in its own right, has a spiritual core that asks some pretty significant theological questions. Lee’s film skirts none of these queries, using the book’s alternating points of view in seamless fashion to blend fantasy and realism in one ocean of possibility. This faith in Martel’s narrative vision is part of what makes Life of Pi such an effective movie.
We’re introduced to Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), an Indian-Canadian born in Pondicherry with a hell of a story to tell. He is meeting with a local novelist (Rafe Spall) to share the tale and potentially turn it into a book. Patel reveals first how he got his full name (from the Piscine Molitor pool in France) and how he changed it to Pi for pretty obvious phonetic reasons.
Pi details his religious explorations, at once calling the younger him a Christian-Hindu-Muslim and finding God everywhere – even in the animals at his family’s zoo. When his family moves to Canada, the boat sinks and the 16-year-old Pi (Suraj Sharma) is tossed on to a lifeboat. His family presumed dead, our protagonist floats aimlessly at sea and discovers that his one companion is Richard Parker – a Bengal tiger.
Life of Pi is Sharma’s first film role and the actor from New Delhi does a remarkable job acting alongside a tiger represented in both real stripes and CGI-assisted resonance. Sharma’s eyes are expressive and he is able to transmit the picture’s emotions almost effortlessly, appearing both weary and full of absolute wonder at the same time.
That sense of wonder is essential for the character of Pi Patel, of course. Having just wanted to love God, he sees no theological discrepancy when it comes to keeping one foot in each religion. He sees no use in the boundaries and understands faith as a deeper connection, seeking God not as a religiously-bound entity but as a broader concept.
For Patel, as he explains to the novelist, his story of shipwreck is one that defines God after a fashion – or one that at least defines an approach or two to God. This, it would seem to follow, suggests that the totality of Pi’s life defines an approach or several to God. As he sees no value in clinging to just one tradition and finds God exists in all avenues, even the uglier and grittier tales of shipwreck that don’t include interesting animals, the choice of approach is one of imagination.
Lee selects an imaginative approach, clearly, but his vision is one of penetration and poesy. The film is already “divided” in three parts and the director dedicates an expressive style to each, choosing a documentarian’s tack for modern times and delighting in vibrant blues and exciting 3D for moments at sea. The scenes from Pi’s early life, meanwhile, feel lifted from Spielberg’s sense of India.
What we end up with is a mosaic, a movie of dispersed visual fragments that melt together all the same. Lee’s aesthetic conclusions serve the greater good, showcasing a fantastical world that is all too real without taking the sting out of Martel’s novel. Life of Pi is captivating stuff as a result, an involving experience of transcendent heft and a visual feast of considerable proportions.