“Life of Pi,” directed by Oscar-winner Ang Lee, is a complex blend of fable, literary Naturalism, and religious speculation. Based on the 2002 novel by Yann Martel, the movie not only does justice to the book but, thanks to the work of cinematographer Claudio Miranda and a legion of special effects magicians, enlarges it. The people behind the camera are the real stars of this “starless” film.
That said, neophyte actor Suraj Sharma stays credible throughout this incredible tale, no mean feat considering the daunting task he confronts. His character, teenager Piscine Molitor Patel—self-nicknamed “Pi” to avoid teasing puns on his name—demonstrates an uncanny facility with pi, that irrational number that proves so useful in geometry. His irrationality brings him to confront his rationalist father (Adil Hussain), a zookeeper who scoffs at his younger son’s simultaneous, contradictory embrace of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam.
But Pi’s deep, if mingled faith sees him through an adventure that defies belief. In a frame story, he tells his tale to a young Canadian novelist (played by Rafe Spall) who has been told by Pi’s uncle that the story will make him believe in God. The movie is, indeed, rife with Biblical references, religious symbolism, and allegory. At several points, Pi calls out to God, pleading for divine help, questioning God’s plan for him. Despite his Job-like woes, however, he never doubts God’s existence, even at the point of his death.
Pi must leave his Edenic existence in Pondicherry, India, to set sail with his family and their animals for Canada. But the creaky freighter founders and sinks, leaving him adrift in a lifeboat with a mini-menagerie: an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and a massive Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Eventually, the tiger eats the other animals; clearly, he would like to finish off his meals with a piece of Pi. (The tiger and other animals are mostly wondrous creatures of CGI.)
This Noah despite himself is deeply aware that the tiger will never be his friend, nor even tamed. If this is “survival of the fittest,” he proves himself Richard Parker’s equal, even reversing their roles at several points. One of the film’s several pleasures is watching Pi plan, improvise, and just plain wing it. The lifeboat’s book on surviving at sea supplies more comic relief than aid, though it does give him some paper for a journal, a place to set down the words he hopes will save him.
He is “saved,” certainly, perhaps to tell his story, then give it away to the novelist, who gets to decide whether the fabulous tale or an alternate, realistic version are true and whether either one has a happy ending. If “Life of Pi” has a weakness, it’s in the rather limp frame tale, which suffers by contrast to the adventure at sea. The ocean becomes a transcendent setting, a place for magical realism, where confrontation and communion with the material and spiritual worlds occur simultaneously. Professor Pi’s Montreal home is pretty ordinary.
I avoided (once again) the 3-D version, but I have read that it’s unusually impressive, keeping the technology firmly in the service of the story, as it should always be. I do have to assert that, no matter what the dimension, this movie should not be rated “PG.” Though Lee generally cuts away from outright blood and gore, Nature is still plenty red in tooth and claw here. In any case, younger children will not be able to appreciate many of the film’s themes.
Adults, however, should put this one on their must-see list. I’m guessing that it will be up for several Oscars in the technical categories and that Lee will be in the running for Best Director, as may screenwriter David Magee for his adaptation of the novel, which many thought an impossible task. Win or lose, though, the film represents a signal cinematic accomplishment.