Life Of Pi
Can a story make you believe in God? That’s the challenge issued by Ang Lee’s gorgeously realized new film, in which a shipwrecked Indian teen and a Bengal tiger share a life boat, facing the high seas, and one another, for survival.
The novel "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel serves as the source material for this film of the same title written for the screen by David Magee. The movie pares and simplifies, as movies must, but stays true to the spirit of the book: No one’s journey here proceeds from place to place in a straight line. Rather, each course is charted in loops and whorls that pull disparate elements into a single epic tale. That includes the story’s own dual-layer nature, which was more hinted at in the book but here is treated as a defining characteristic: Whereas Pi Patel tells his story to a writer in the novel’s opening pages, his narration forms the backbone of the movie. (Pi as a middle-aged man is played by Irrfan Khan; his youthful self is played by Suraj Sharma.)
The name Pi turns out to be short for "Piscine." It seems that Pi was named for a French swimming pool. But the mathematical connotation of his name has a role to play, as well; in order to get his school mates to stop calling him by a crude nickname, Pi memorizes the mathematical value of the irrational number that the Greek letter stands for, and writes it out to hundreds of decimal places on his school’s blackboards.
That’s not just a cute aside, as it turns out. The older Pi tells his writer friend that his story will inspire a belief in God, but Pi is a complex individual who follows three faith traditions. Just as important to him is the idea that rationality can be a kind of faith; and indeed, it’s his ability to reason his way through challenges that helps him survive his trial at sea.
At the beginning of the yarn, Pi’s family owns a zoo in Pondicherry, India. Or rather, they own the exotic animals in the zoo; they do not own the land, and when they lose the right to keep their zoo on its parcel of the city’s park, they are forced to relocate to Canada, taking a number of their animals with them to deliver to buyers in North America. Getting there is a complicated matter, because you can’t fly zebras and giraffes on commercial airlines; instead, the family book passage for themselves and their living cargo aboard a freighter.
When the boat goes down during a storm, only Pi and a handful of animals escape. The tiny ark that their lifeboat becomes contains the boy, an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena -- and a nine-foot-long Bengal tiger improbably named Richard Parker, who was the pride of the Pondicherry zoo, but who is now the most dangerous passenger on a boat where survival only gets harder with each passing day.
If a story set in a lifeboat sounds hard to make interesting, be assured that Martel’s book found ways to make it absolutely gripping. Lee’s film adopts most of those same narrative approaches, but adds a layer of visual beauty and dynamism that kick the entire production to a new level -- and I’m not talking about the fact that the movie was filmed in 3D, though that helps. The film is full of moments that are so beautiful you might literally lose your breath. To call Lee’s adaptation transcendent wouldn’t simply be a way to describe its impact; the film often seems so take place in a realm of stars and clouds, with majestic skies mirrored by the ocean’s surface. We’re not in any ordinary place here, but then again, this is no ordinary tale of a boy and his Bengal tiger.
Ang Lee has always had a talent for strong visual composition, whether dissecting Americana from the 1970s in "The Ice Storm" or adapting a comic book to the screen in "Hulk" (and say what you will about that script’s failings in the script department; it was a vibrant visual accomplishment). Lee’s best known films are probably "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," where gravity-defying martial arts experts dueled in the tops of bamboo groves, and "Brokeback Mountain," the same-sex romance involving two sheep herders in 1960s-era Wyoming. The former was all about action and kinetic visual fluidity; the latter was a heartbreaking story of love caught in stasis, made impossible by fear.
Lee has had a couple of critical and commercial flops since then, with "Lust, Caution" and "Woodstock," ably made movies that didn’t quite reach the level of the visionary. But with "Life of Pi," Lee once again proves himself a master of his medium. The story soars, the cinematography achieves rare effects of light and composition, and the film’s sure-to-be-controversial ending carries a sting of surprise balmed by a deep and generous wisdom.
Amazingly, the movie earned a PG rating; this is a story that includes astonishing violence from nature and animals, but shows us very little blood or gore. Nor is there much profanity -- as with the novel’s prose, the dialogue is lyrical (and the verbal cadences of the mostly-Indian cast underscore the poetry of the language).
Personally, I think Lee got rooked at the 78th Academy Awards when "Brokeback Mountain" lost to, of all things, "Crash." Oscar’s dance card for next year’s ceremonies is already filling up, with movies like "Lincoln" breaking late in the year like tidal waves of cinematic splendor, but "Life of Pi" is simply the most comprehensively stunning film to hit the silver screen in ages. It’s early yet, but I’m ready to bet Oscar gold on the tiger.