Ang Lee’s film “Life of Pi” dares you to believe in many things—that there are many Gods and no Gods, that humans are rational and animalistic and Gods themselves, and that God is a force of nature. It’s a story designed to test the viewer’s ability to hold many perspectives, and none at all.
Based on Yann Martel’s 2001 Booker Prize-winning novel, the movie tells the story of Piscine Molitor Patel, Pi for short. A writer (Rafe Spall) tracks down the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) because he’s heard that Pi has a true life story that will make him believe in God. As their conversation unfolds, so does the film. Told in flashback, we are introduced to Pi growing up in a family-run zoo in Pondicherry, India. A precocious child, Pi is interested in unraveling the nature of God and Richard Parker, the massive Bengal Tiger housed at the zoo. While his understanding of the Gods come from Hindu, Christian and Muslim clerics (I say Gods because Pi is decidedly a polytheist; he thanks the God Vishnu for introducing him to the God Jesus at one point in the film), it’s his father who introduces him to Richard Parker and life’s harsh eat or be eaten reality. These two ideas form the basis of the story’s thematic undercurrent.
As years pass, political and economic factors force the Patel family and the now 16-year-old Pi (Suraj Sharma) to travel by freighter with their menagerie to Canada in hopes of selling the animals in turn for a better life. When a storm sinks the ship, Pi soon finds himself in a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, dwindling rations, and despite efforts to keep him out of the boat, Richard Parker. Soon only Pi and Richard Parker are left, battling each other and the ocean for survival. But the work goes deeper than that.
The film’s beautiful and lush CGI paints the world around the lifeboat with Technicolor vibrancy, giving the idea that nature itself is alive, aware, alien and dangerous. From the luminescent wonder of an ocean lit by eerie phosphorescence to a school of flying fish trying to escape predatory tuna, Lee shows us that Pi and Richard Parker aren’t the only one’s struggling to stay alive. It’s this visual counterpoint that helps carry the story’s undercurrent to dramatic effect without being overwrought.
The movie rests on the capable shoulders of acting newcomer Sharma. The rational, the religious, and the animalistic are all vying for Pi’s soul. He portrays Pi’s fear, doubt, anger, sadness and faith with such a depth and poignancy that you can’t help but feel what he is experiencing.
In the tale of a shipwrecked boy and a tiger, Lee has very nearly given the world a modern Pagan parable.
Life of Pi
PG, 2hr. 7 min.
Directed by: Ang Lee
Written By: David Magee, Yann Martel
Irfan Khan as Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, adult
Suraj Sharma as Pi, age 16
Ayush Tandon as Pi, age 11/12
Gautam Belur as Pi, age 5
Adil Hussain as Santosh Patel, Pi’s father
Gérard Depardieu as the Cook
Bo-Chieh Wang as the Sailor
Rafe Spall as the Writer