What you get from Life of Pi depends on what you’re expecting. If you’ve read Yann Martel’s book, you’ll expect to see its descriptive passages brought to life, and be curious about how comfortably the spiritual enquiry sits alongside the castaway adventure. If you haven’t, you’ll be stunned by where the film takes you visually and philosophically, and come out wondering if you’ve just seen something significant or merely entertaining.
Significance? That depends on where you’re at with the meaning of life. For some it will feel old hat; for others, revelatory; for the very young, forget it. (In any case, despite the animals, it’s not a children’s film.) Its ideas don’t come in a package tied with a bow; they’re more transparent packages within transparent packages, with glimpses of interlocking meanings and metaphors if you care to examine them later.
It helps to read the book, which I did between two viewings, and the fi lm was definitely better second time around. It was easier to ponder the metaphors, appreciate the philosophical journey and notice the detail in the survival story. And the latter is where the whole enterprise is so eye-poppingly entertaining.
The story of how 17-year-old Pi from India ends up in a lifeboat in the Pacific with a bengal tiger named Richard Parker is told partly in words – the older Pi, safe and well in Montreal, sets the scene, fills the gaps and rounds it off in an interview with a writer, as in the book – but is delivered best in the pictures. They are breathtaking, rendered in 3D in a way that is less about kinetic surprise and more about emphasising the beauty of the natural world and the awful wonder of its violence. Fans of the book should feel satisfied their visual expectations have been met. Furthermore, such epic imagery makes it easy to open the door to all that spiritual questioning, as good castaway stories should.
From the saffron-hued Pondicherry, where young Pi grows up in his family’s zoo and tests out the first innocent stirrings of faith and love, to the grey fury, blue calm and green sustenance of the ocean where that faith is tested, there’s a feast of visual stimuli. Much of it is computer-generated but astoundingly real – yet just unreal enough to remind us of the fable nature of the story.
The animals that play leading roles in the fable are magnificently realised. Richard Parker in particular, whose handsome, mesmerising presence commands respect while discouraging the usual temptation to anthropomorphise – something that the film, in acknowledging one of the book’s themes, declines to do with any of the creatures. And their human colleagues, most of them drawn from the cream of Indian talent, also have a quality presence. First-time actor Suraj Sharma is an appealing embodiment of Pi, and as his older self, Irrfan Khan emanates the inner peace and wisdom of one who has faced his character’s trials.
So, does it “make you believe in God”, as the writer (Rafe Spall) has been told it will? Spall’s bemused expression reflects our own. There is a degree of closure, but not catharsis. We’re preoccupied with trying to organise meaning out of the many ideas traversed – religion, animal behaviour, reason, coexistence, survival, love, violence … and it’s an enticing, slippery and open-ended exercise. It’s more Eastern enigma than Western certainty. If in the end you decide in exasperation “it’s just a story”, you’re probably right. A story about storytelling.
LIFE OF PI, directed by Ang Lee
Films are rated out of 5: 1 = abysmal; 5 = amazing