The Life of Pi

LIFE OF PI. Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Gerard Depardieu, and Rafe Spall. Directed by Ang Lee. Rated PG (Mild survival themes). 127 min.

This is a fantasy-adventure drama based on the 2001 novel of the same name by Yann Martel. The novel won The Man Booker prize in 2002, and Ang Lee, the film’s director, was responsible for the much-awarded, "Brokeback Mountain" (2005).

The story is about a young Indian boy, named Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, who survives 227 days in a lifeboat set adrift after a fierce storm at sea. Pi shares his first days in the lifeboat with an injured zebra, an angry hyena, a friendly orang-utan, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger, called Richard Parker. There are three people playing Pi in this film, and the major acting role is taken by Suraj Sharma.

The film itself is divided into three parts. In the first section, a local novelist of obscure identity (Rafe Spall) hears of a remarkable story and interviews an adult Pi (Irfan Khan) about his past. Pi’s story is said to make one believe in God. Pi was raised as a Hindu. His beliefs, however, bridge many religions, including Catholicism, and Pi has religious faith in the benefits of each. Faith in God is Pi’s reason for his existence.

The second part shows a young Pi setting out with his family on a Japanese freighter bound for Canada, carrying animals for a zoo. Pi’s father owned a zoo where he lived, and Gerard Depardieu plays an angry cook on board. The ship capsizes and his mother (Tabu), father (Adil Hussain), and brother all perish in the storm. The four animals that survive and find the lifeboat eat or kill each other, leaving Pi (Suraj Sharma) with Richard Parker. Pi uses his knowledge and trains Richard Parker to live with him, and the lifeboat eventually washes up on the Mexican coast, where Richard Parker and Pi find refuge on an island of carnivorous algae, offering fresh water and food by day and death at night. Knowing its dangers, they get back in their lifeboat.

The third part develops the spiritual core of the film. The lifeboat drifts to another island. Near to death, Pi is rescued, an emaciated Richard Parker walks into the jungle without looking back, and the Japanese Ministry of Transport sends two people to ask Pi to explain what happened. They do not believe his story, so he invents one, that “all can believe”. In Pi’s two versions of what happened, the novelist thinks maybe the orang-utan represents Pi’s mother, and Richard Parker is Pi himself. No one can prove the truth of either story, and the novelist chooses finally to believe Pi’s first story because he thinks “it is the better one”. Viewers are left to ponder, however, whether Pi’s story is an allegory of another version of what might really have happened.

This is a stunning movie, beautifully directed and produced, and it brings Martel’s novel brilliantly to the screen. Ang Lee’s grasp of the imaginative power of cinema is apparent everywhere. One marvels at the images of a huge tiger in the foreground with a diminutive youth in the background, and aerial shots from an illuminated sky of a lifeboat with a huge tiger in it. Lee is preoccupied with the narrowing and expansion of distances, and his preoccupation works. The photography wonderfully depicts alternating and contrasting viewpoints of the story that is unfolding.

This is an intense, emotional and absorbing film of spiritual survival against the odds, and illustrates strongly the themes of friendship, faith, and perseverance. Richard Parker unknowingly kept Pi alive, but it was God who gave Pi his reason for living.

This is a remarkable film of a movie many thought was unfilmable. It offers dazzling visual effects, including a whale cavorting in a luminous sea. Almost unforgettable are the scenes of a starving Pi staring a hungry Richard Parker down, Richard Parker pawing desperately at the side of the lifeboat trying to get back in it, terrified marmots retreating from the acid sea coming in on their carnivorous island, and Pi’s faith-filled plea to God in an ocean storm: “What more do you want? ”

The film itself was shot digitally for three dimensional release, and should definitely be seen in 3D.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office of Film and Broadcasting.

Twentieth Century Fox.

Out January 1st., 2013.