Life of Pi is a film about stories, parables and metaphors. About religion, spirituality, God. About rationality, objectivity and subjectivity. About trying to find meaning in hardship; how to make sense of the inexplicable. The film is structured around an author chatting to a man called Pi (which is short for something amusing) about his eventful life.
The character of Pi is an open-minded and inquisitive child living in sun-dappled India, soaking in knowledge and questioning the beliefs of people around him, dipping his toes into every major religion in the hopes of deriving meaning in his existence.
His desire for truth is put to the test as during a voyage across the pacific to start a new life in Canada, the ship sinks along with his entire family. Pi is ultimately left to fend for himself on a life boat with a mean tiger.
The premise sounds too incredible to be taken seriously, however Lee’s film is an assault on the senses, mind and emotions, as he deftly explores the young man’s life from a boy to teen to adult, while dealing with the more fantastical elements with surreal imagery that’s mesmerising, and a justification for keeping 3D around.
Pi’s family is as open minded as he is, willing to allow him to experiment with different faiths, though his father warns him at an amusing dinner table conversation, “If you believe in every religion, you believe in nothing!”. Their entire backstory is portrayed in a whimsical Wes Anderson way, with amusing quirks, making it all the more devastating when they’re tragically taken from Pi.
His journey across the ocean is full of life-changing exploits, a shifting dynamic relationship with the tiger, and scored by the brilliant Mychael Danna, whose soundtrack never becomes typical or overbearing, but always imbued with a light touch, knowing when to disappear and re-appear.
Suraj Sharma as the teen Pi gives a brave performance, his first in an acting role. It’s not exactly a tour-de-force, but another actor could have gone overboard with their performance, however Sharma has enough charisma and earnestness to pull it off. The older version of his character (played by Irrfan Khan) recounting the tale to the author (played by Rafe Spall) should get awards though, giving an effortless naturalistic performance.
As for the tiger, named Richard Parker (again for amusing reasons), the CGI for this animal is so good, so indicative of the exponential rate of technological progress, that it’s actually disturbing. It makes me wonder if we’re already living in a computer simulation. Parker is a memorable creation and a testament to the benefits of CGI used in service of the story being told and not as mere eye candy.
The cinematography is astounding, and iconic. The 3D is of the best I’ve seen, immersing you in colourful landscapes and amidst lively creatures. The canvas is a shifting kaleidoscope, with bold imagery at every turn. A memorable scene shows a top down view of the boat floating on the ocean in the dark, with a cloudless night sky reflected back, as if Pi is floating among the stars.
The older and wiser Pi says to Rafe Spall’s author that he will believe in God once he’s heard the entirety of Pi’s amazing tale. The film doesn’t quite live up to that promise, although the mere statement itself is a set up, to which the pay off is delivered with a sure touch.
The most compelling stories are the ones that touch upon something universal, where all audiences can relate to what is being portrayed. Life of Pi concerns itself with a voyage. One that we all embark on from birth to death, and though its rumination on the nature of religion might not be bought by all viewers, the film reminds us of the power of stories. The stories our ancestors told around a campfire to get through the night, the stories we tell each other to get through life. Why a truth is conveyed more effectively in metaphor, than literally.
Ang Lee has not lost his touch as a storyteller, let’s hope he continues to tackle every genre out there to convey truths to film-loving believers.
Originally posted at film-news.co.uk.