Director: Ang Lee
Writers: Yann Martel (novel), David Magee (screenplay)
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain
“Is it better to live a beautiful lie or with a difficult truth?”
Let me start by saying this is the hardest film I have had to review to date. Not because of the complexity of the plot, not because the issues it raises, not because of the intricacies of the characters but because to review the film properly would be to destroy the magic of the story. Pi’s Survival at Sea book states “telling stories is highly recommended” – the basis for this film is a survivor telling his story to a new friend in need of inspiration.
Your first thoughts upon seeing this review may be similar to mine, “Why has it taken so long to see this film?” The film premiered in December of 2012, grabbed 4 Oscars in January 2013 and yet it has taken until Christmas of 2013 for me to see and review it. To be honest despite talk of amazing visuals and great storytelling the one glaring barrier to me watching Life of Pi was like a luminous stop sign to my index finger each time I considered clicking the button: religion. As a staunch atheist the idea of being preached to for 2hrs was abhorrent to me. I consider myself a champion of rationalism and evidence based reasoning and watching a film with the tagline: “A Story that will make you believe in God” seems on the one hand to be laughable in its bold-faced audacity but on the other so challenging to my atheistic pillars of logic and rational sense. This torment pulled at me; can I watch a film that has been so well received but seems on the outside to be so abject to my belief system? The decision was made the night my family were arguing over which film to watch and were unwilling to listen to my guidance with regards to Pain & Gain, Elysium or the latest Nicholas ‘ I’ll do anything to clear my tax debt’ Cage straight to DVD affair. I lifted up my laptop, put on my headphones and let my index finger linger long enough over play to commit to watching Life of Pi.
∏ is the most famous irrational number and Pi is true to his homophonic namesake. From an early age Pi has a curious nature, he tries to look for truth and meaning behind all things, leading him to take on multiple belief systems. He can do this by not taking on every aspect of any one religion but rather seeking possible answers to what he sees in his life. This is set against the backdrop of his father stating that he “would much rather you believe in something I don’t agree with than believe in everything blindly, and that begins with thinking rationally.” I really like the openness of his parents – so many characters of eastern or middle-eastern origin are portrayed as close minded and with various degrees of fundamentalist thinking. Pi’s parents have views about the world but encourage him to make up his own mind. They let him explore the world around him free from their own prejudices. This is in spirit with the film as a whole, the viewers may be distinct but if they leave their prejudices at the door they can make their own mind up by the end.
The religious parables slap you in the face left, right and centre like an angry toddler with a rattle but they do so mainly via the visuals, which are so stunning that you melt into the moments regardless of the allegory. Scenes between the animals and Pi are wonderful and apart from a few moments of hyena teeth, hummingbird playfulness and heavily starved tiger I was completely convinced the animals were real with CGI not crossing my mind. This film’s visuals are stunning, it was made with 3D in mind and as I watched it in 2D I could see which elements would clearly have been jumping from the screen. I didn’t need the 3D to truly respect the layers of colour; be astounded by nature at its most raw and be elevated by the courage shown in beautiful glory. As large aspects of the film are restricted to the space around a lifeboat, Ang Lee has made sure that the boat, the sea, the stars and everything else they run into are wonderfully engaging. Fantastic audio, both sound effects and music, helped drown out the restlessness and murmurs from the family around me who were not being treat to Ang Lee’s beautiful film.
The film’s first act surrounds Pi’s early life and adolescence in French India. The time taken to set the scene is baggy; there were elements introduced that were not essential to the story and could have easily been cut. I really liked the explanation of his name though, how it shaped his character and the how his name is a talisman for the story. The scenes around the streets of French India are striking as they are a side of India we don’t normally see.
Unfortunately for Pi’s idyllic life and blossoming love, trouble is beginning to hit India as politics are swaying and Indira Gandhi considers martial law. His father (well played by Adil Hussain) , abusinessman who opened a zoo when Pi was very young inside the botanical gardens in Ponticherry, has decided that life would be easier for his family if he moves his zoo to Canada. So the tickets are bought, animals organised and the boat across the pacific is boarded. We know from the trailers that there is a storm and the boat gets into difficulties, leaving young Pi and elements of his family’s menagerie aboard a lifeboat but you are little prepared for the lifelike and terrifying scenes of the storm and its aftermath. What follows is a fantastic tale of survival for young Pi.
Scenes aboard the lifeboat at times resemble a gripping stage play where characters are portrayed in a very small area with all the acting needing to take place in a confined space with few props for aid. This is one of the main strong points of Ang Lee’s film: to develop a convincing character in the Tiger so that the interplay between him and Pi is so captivating. An island element which, to a degree, gives decent justice to Darwinian evolution is welcome, if a little fanciful.
Life of Pi is perhaps analogous to Castaway with Tom Hanks but whilst Castaway had a sense of hopelessness and finality Life of Pi has courage and optimism. You find yourself willing Pi on as he battles from one moment to the next in his efforts to survive his ordeals upon the waves. A large part of this is the fact that Suraj Sharma’s (Pi) performance was astounding; especially given this was his first film. He will have had to act out the majority of scenes without another actor on stage to play against, due to so many of the scenes being filmed in front of a green screen. It reminded me of watching the inexperienced actors sublimely playing Somali pirates in Captain Phillips.
I’d love to be able to go into more detail about the end and discuss it with you all but as in all my reviews I want you to experience it like I have, free from bias and hopefully with the innocence you brought to it. Suffice to say the ending will stay with me for some time to come. This film is definitely fulfilling and surprisingly, given the atheism expressed so delicately at the beginning of this review, thought provoking and perhaps even life affirming. So the big question: Was Life of Pi “a story that would make me believe in God?”…With honest reflection, Life of Pi affirmed my non-belief in a deity but helped to explain why those upon our planet can see the majesty upon our world and attribute it to the supernatural. For some the truth is uglier than the dream, for some the truth enlightens the mind and invigorates ones senses and view of the world. But for all who watch this film you are left touched by the fact that at its heart, it is a story that can appeal to all and will fill your wee cheeks with a smile.