As we are consistently told throughout the opening scenes of Fox 2000’s new release, The Life of Pi (adapted from the 2001 best-selling novel by Yann Matel), the story about to unfold “will make you believe in God.”
Though that is hardly the case, the spectacular visual landscapes, animated beasts, and terrifying storm sequences, imagined and rendered masterfully in 3D by director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) will certainly cause a stir in your stomach, if not in your faith.
The story follows Pi Patel (played well by acting newcomer Suraj Sharma), told in a series of increasingly extended flashbacks from an older Pi (Irrfan Khan) to a dumbfounded Canadian writer (Rafe Spall) who is inquiring into his legendary story of surviving 227 days at sea—with a Bengal tiger.
Pi’s journey begins as a precocious and odd boy, living a privileged life at his father’s zoo in Pondicherry, India. Alienation at school and an inner spiritual curiosity lead him to begin collecting faiths, turning him into somewhat of a religions connoisseur; by the time he is 14, he has declared himself to be Hindu, Christian, and Muslim. This pits him against his father, a stalwart of reason and rationality, whom at one point cruelly demonstrates the naiveté of Pi’s imagined spiritual connection to their Bengal tiger by forcing him to witness the animal’s brutal feeding ritual.
Amidst rising political turmoil, the family decides to move to Canada. So they pack up their animals into a ship—an ark of sorts—that the audience knows to be a doomed vessel. In one of the film’s most visceral and intense scenes, we watch as Pi barely survives the massive storm. Pinned to Pi’s point of view, we watch helplessly as the ship and his family sink into the abyss. Pi’s trials—and the story, finally—are just beginning as he finds himself onboard with an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and his old friend, the Bengal tiger Richard Parker.
After a rather dull opening, the film finds itself and steadies into a groove, providing a visually rich and intimately detailed portrait of Pi’s struggle to survive both physically and spiritually aboard his small lifeboat with Richard Parker (it doesn’t take long until only the tiger and Pi are left). The extraordinary detail of Richard Parker is one of the film’s highest achievements. With him, the film’s animators present a highly convincing primal presence that is balanced by a range of clear emotional expression. Mr. Lee’s elegantly composed settings take full advantage of the 3D language, and his marvelous use of the screen’s newfound depth provide for an endless visual feast of light and color.
Though on the surface the film seems to revolve around the test of Pi’s faith, it also attempts to test the audience’s trust by calling into question the facts about Pi’s story in the film’s final minutes. The older Pi suggests to the writer that only through the tremendous suffering he experienced was he able to come closer to God, or to cherishing his life. Stripped of everything—his family, his possessions, and his home—Pi’s ultimate test is to keep his will to live. These tests, these experiences of the human limit, he seems to say, are what make a great story, and great stories (regardless of their “truth”) have the ability to restore one’s faith in the beauty of life. As Mr. Lee put rather simply in an October press conference about the film, “I think it is very important to pretend to reach truth…to tease out that old feeling of purity and wonder.”
Life of Pi (Fox 2000) was released on November 21, and is now playing in theaters everywhere.
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