|Sharma and catness afloat in Life of Pi.|
«««1/2 Life of Pi. Written by David Magee, based on the novel by Yann Martel. Directed by Ang Lee.
The makers of Lincoln dared to make a long movie about counting votes in Congress. But Spielberg and Co. look positively timid compared to what Ang Lee risked in his wondrous Life of Pi. For Lee has not only made a $120 million movie about a kid floating around the Pacific with not much to do, and done it without any Hollywood stars. He made it with few recognizable faces at all, and what faces there are are the shade of brown usually kept in the background of exotic love stories, selling trinkets in the street. Yet Pi happens to be one of the best movies of the year.
Yann Martel's bestselling 2001 novel concerns Pi (Suraj Sharma), an Indian boy with a peculiar way of looking at the world. Where his country is roiled by religious divisions, and his zookeeper father (Adil Hussein) is militantly secular, Pi practices a kind of radical syncretism, adopting any faith he claps his curious eyes upon. Hindu by birth, Christian by temperament, Muslim in practice, he needs all that faith when disaster strikes the ship carrying his family and all their zoo animals to Canada. Pi survives in a lifeboat, accompanied by a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan—and an adult Bengal tiger called "Richard Parker".
Martel's survival story is an Aesop's fable as Aesop himself would have written it—that is, without sentimentality, red in tooth and claw. Inevitably, Pi's little ark very quickly becomes less populated as the animals get hungry. Keeping Richard Parker at bay in their tiny boat turns out to be the answer to Pi's pantheistic prayers, as caring for a pissed-off, ravenous, seasick cat gives him a larger purpose. Along the way Lee—following the novel faithfully—reveals a wider, deeper universe unwinding around and beneath their little refuge on the waves. The result is alternately harrowing, comic, and astonishing.
The air of fable naturally invites us to read this story allegorically. The lifeboat is India, perhaps, divided by religion, caste, language and ethnicity, yet somehow poised on the doorstep of eternity. Or it is all of humanity, struggling to pull itself together before it topples into the abyss. Or the boat somehow reflects the state of Pi's own mind—a possibility suggested by Martel himself (more on that below). However you fancy taking Pi's relationship with Richard Parker, it sure beats conversing with a painted volleyball.
It has been suggested that Pi was unfilmable before the advent of technology to envision rich CGI characters. The tiger is indeed rendered pretty convincingly here, albeit with something of a Narnia-esque flatness. That's a minor flaw, however, next to how Lee and screenwriter David Magee (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) chose to present the tale's ending. As in the novel, Pi admits that the story he is telling may not be exactly as it happened; his account might well be a pleasant rationalization, the truth more bestial than bestiary. To avoid spoiling the ambiguity, suffice it to say that Pi presents one answer to Neo's dilemma in The Matrix, where the question of faith comes down to taking the red pill (and seeing how shocking the truth is) or the blue (and believing what you prefer to believe).
"Which is the better story?" the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) asks his interviewer (Rafe Spall). "It's like that with [believing in] God." Pi's faith, in other words, is rooted in a kind of Jamesian pragmatism, where—all consequences being equal—a pleasant, empowering fiction is superior to an appalling, self-defeating doubt. Red pill or blue pill?
But the question is hardly fair, since Lee has not bothered by visualize that other, less fanciful, but possibly more truthful story. He just has Sharma tell it straight to the camera. Like William James, Pi (and possibly Martel) seems to prefer the colorful version of his adventure because he invests more effort in presenting it. Meanwhile, the costs of not knowing what he leaves out of his version are unknown, and so never missed.
Sixty-year years ago, Alfred Hitchcock released Lifeboat, a story set in similar circumstances, about a small group of survivors afloat in the Atlantic in war-time. Hitchcock's movie might have been more charming if some of his characters had four legs. But would it really have been better?
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro