Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is likely to be misinterpreted as religious propaganda by more secular-minded audiences, particularly at the atheistic end of the spectrum. It is unquestionably a spiritual film, and yet never once does it purport that religious beliefs are real or even unreal. It only purports that, for one reason or another, people have beliefs. It might seem as if audiences are challenged to decipher reality from fantasy. It might also seem as if a case for having faith is being pleaded to the faithless. By my reading of the film, nothing is being pleaded to anyone; the only thing we’re being told is how faith works for those that have it. If you’re not among the faithful, that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t get anything out of this movie. It will mean different things to different people, which is exactly as it should be.
So what does Life of Pi mean to me? I see it as powerful, life-affirming, and a breathtaking visual experience, the picturesque settings enlivened by a bold color scheme, clever camera tricks, and spectacular computer-generated special effects. In regards to the way the film looks, my only reservation would be its presentation in 3D, which, given the immersive way in which the shots are framed, was surprisingly ineffective. Perhaps it depends entirely on what projector your theater uses, but my advice is the same as it almost always is: Save yourself the extra money and see it in standard, noticeably brighter 2D. This film is so awash in visual splendors that it would be downright cruel to opt for a presentation that dims them. You don’t merely see them; you drink them in, bathe in them.
Adapted from the novel by Yann Martel, the story unfolds as a series of extended flashback sequences that reveal important chapters in the life of Piscine Molitor Patel, who was born in Pondicherry, India and was named after a swimming pool in France, his uncle’s favorite. As a boy (Ayush Tandon), he was saddled with an especially unpleasant nickname by both his classmates and teachers and soon thereafter changed his first name to Pi, after the mathematic symbol. His father (Adil Hussain), a zookeeper and polio victim, considered himself a part of the New India and valued reason over religion. His mother (Tabu), a gardener, acknowledged the advancements of science but still held to her Hindu beliefs, in large part because it was her only remaining connection to her estranged family.
During this time, Pi began a spiritual quest that would introduce him to Christianity and Islam. He would never convert to any one religion, nor would he remain a strict Hindu; as a believer in God, he saw value in all three faiths and would incorporate elements of each into his life. By the time he was a teenager (Suraj Sharma), economic conditions in India necessitated that his father close his zoo and move both his animals and his family to Canada. The journey to a new life aboard a Japanese freighter was cut tragically short; the boat sank after getting caught in a storm over the Mariana Trench. The only survivors were Pi, an orangutan, a hyena, a zebra, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. They floated away from the shipwreck on the only launched lifeboat.
It didn’t take long for the orangutan, the hyena, and the zebra to meet their untimely ends. At that point, lost in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Pi and Richard Parker had to learn to coexist while at the same time struggle to survive. For us in the audience, the stage is set for scenes of tremendous beauty, excitement, danger, and emotion. We see the lifeboat float through a nighttime swarm of bioluminescent fish, Pi trying to keep his mind occupied by reading the boat’s survival manual and writing down his thoughts, twilight-kissed clouds reflecting off the water’s mirror-like calm, Richard Parker being trained yet never losing his primal instincts, both Pi asserting to the tiger that he is in fact the alpha male, and the lifeboat becoming bountiful with flying fish. They both eventually wind up on a mysterious island infested with meerkats, one that appears to be made entirely of edible algae and becomes carnivorous at night.
All this is being recounted by a now middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan), who lives in Canada. Giving him his undivided attention is an unnamed writer (Rafe Spall), who has doubts about the existence of God. Reason strongly suggests that Pi’s story is nothing more than a tall tale, that he’s intentionally embellishing his experience of being lost at sea. Emotion strongly suggests that Pi has been telling a true story the entire time. It ultimately doesn’t matter where reality ends and fantasy begins, assuming such a distinction can be made; whatever the facts are, they don’t pertain to the sinking of the Japanese freighter. They also can’t be proven or disproven. Life of Pi achieves greatness because it doesn’t presume to ask us to believe as the title character does. It merely shows us that he believes, and that he does so for very personal reasons.