Life of Pi: A Story About The Power Of A Story
I once had a professor (who I’ve written about at length on this site) who told me that The Gospel of Mark in The New Testament was “the most successful story ever written.” If every story has a goal, and Mark’s goal was to convince non-believers that Jesus Christ was in fact the son of God, then it’s safe to say the creation of the largest religion in the history of the world is the highest mark of success one can achieve. How did Mark accomplish this? By telling a terrific story, full of miracles, compelling figures, tragedy, and the affirmation of life. To the first casual readers who had never met Jesus, this must have seemed absolutely insane… and yet the power of the yarn Mark was able to weave convinced them to believe. Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s breathtaking adaptation of the best-seller by Yann Martel, contains another of these improbable stories, full of thrills, emotion, and gorgeous visuals. His ability to successfully bookend that story with his message about storytelling, religion, and our desire as human beings to believe in something is what keeps this particular film afloat. After a slow but necessary start, Life of Pi grows into one of the boldest films of the year.
A writer (Rafe Spall) comes to visit a man named Pi (Irfan Khan), having been told that Pi has a story that will “make him believe in God.” Pi, upon hearing this, agrees to tell him the story and then he can decide what he believes afterward. As a boy, Pi dabbled in all of the various religions, full of questions and longing. His parents (Adil Hussain and Tabu) run a zoo, and early in his life, Pi believes the tiger, Richard Parker, has a soul. To scare him from ever trusting this animal, his father forces him to watch as Richard Parker ruthlessly slaughters a goat. They decide to move from India when Pi is a teenager (Suraj Sharma, in one of my favorite performances this year), so they board a huge ship with all of the animals and set sail for North America. When a colossal storm causes the boat to sink, only Pi survives, stuck on a lifeboat with a couple of the animals– including, unfortunately for him, Richard Parker. As the days progress, Pi clings to life while engaging in a daily struggle to stave off Richard Parker from eating him, forging over the days to come a bond between them… but merely maintaining on a lifeboat isn’t enough to survive forever.
This is Ang Lee’s bread and butter: combining visceral action with a thoughtful spirituality. There’s not much to do as a critic during the sequence at sea other than sit back and be blown away. He uses the depth that 3D can provide to add necessary emotional depth, something not fully mastered in live-action cinema until now. Consider not just the shots of the lifeboat isolated at sea, but of Pi watching his family’s boat sink in front of him underwater or of Richard Parker’s penetrating gaze from an uncomfortably close distance. I felt every corner of the boat, every stroke of the oar, every swipe of Richard Parker’s claw– sure, Lee’s not above the occasional gimmickry of a leap out at the audience, but it’s all purposeful. Even the few aspect ratio shifts he employs in the middle of this sequence are used to allow elements to “escape the frame:” the flying fish literally jump into the black of the empty film screen, a fairly startling and theatrical device I never saw coming. Lee also keeps the colors bright and vivid, compensating for 3D’s general darkening effect… although this film has nothing in common with Avatar storywise, it’s hard to see the glowing jellyfish and not think of the equally bright colors in Cameron’s magical world. The effects are also astonishing: there are Richard Parker scenes that if you told me they were computer-animated, I simply wouldn’t believe you. Most importantly, even when the animation does show its seams, they absolutely nail the character’s eyes, so when Pi is looking to see if Richard Parker has a soul, you’re looking simultaneously, rooting for the animators to give him one. One moment involving Richard Parker was so stunningly animated that it brought me to tears.
What Lee wants you to take away from the film, however, isn’t the tale itself, but rather the artfulness of the tale: the choice we make as an audience to believe in any story in life and the magical way we get swept away by it once we succumb to the storyteller’s power. I admit that the first thirty minutes of set-up are slow and fairly uncinematic: scenes of two men discussing storytelling and a young child discovering religion with plenty of voiceover narration aren’t immediately absorbing, admittedly. However, they definitely pay off in spades by the end, when the final bookend drops its message on you and leaves you reeling. The nimbleness with which Lee achieves his goal is remarkable– if you come in either as a religious person or an atheist, you will likely leave feeling both that your belief system has been confirmed while also understanding where the other side is coming from. It should be easy for a non-believer to note the appeal of the “better story” in life, and it should be easy for a believer to realize that a more dry, logical, and reasonable story is easier for the common man to swallow. This is the type of movie that should be shown in schools across America: it teaches intelligence, tolerance, and healthy curiosity. Everyone has said for years this book was “unadaptable,” “uncinematic,” “couldn’t be done.” For something so unadaptable, Lee certainly has managed to adapt it into a very unique and beautiful cinematic experience– its achievements are difficult to deny.