‘Life of Pi’ Is A Visually Stunning Fable Of Faith And Hope
Published: Sunday, December 2, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
Having read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi back in high school, I walked in to Ang Lee’s film adaptation of the book already primed with two particular questions. One, is film a successful medium for the story? And two, how would the director keep the audience engaged while following the plot of a largely cerebral book with little action? If you haven’t read Life of Pi, and are wondering at the roots of these questions, know that they stem from the idea that the plot, involving an Indian boy stranded at sea with a tiger for 277 days, would seem unfilmable. Lee’s beautiful and moving storytelling answers this logical skepticism and then some.
Piscine “Pi” Patel (Suraj Sharma) is a boy of belief. Raised in Pondicherry, India at his family’s zoo, Pi seeks a lens through which he can view and interpret life and finds one in religion, contrary to his father’s at times harsh scientific realism and empiricism. The first part of the movie is fun and fast paced, its novelty lying in its quirky story portrayal and vibrant color choices. The family zoo goes out of business, and Pi’s family—mother, father, and brother—book a spot on a cargo ship to Canada along with a few of their animals, most notably Richard Parker the Bengal Tiger, traveling to new homes in the Americas. The ship sinks, and Pi finds himself stranded at sea with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and Richard Parker for companions in a small lifeboat—his family gone, and all but Richard and Pi soon dispatched. What follows is a wonderfully captivating journey of survival and self-validation across the Pacific that shows the importance of belief in what some consider an unforgiving universe.
This principal theme of the work is conveyed mainly through depictions of nature’s persistent beauty, despite its ambivalence towards human will. In one scene, a massive whale breaches directly Pi’s boat and causes the loss of supplies and water. The whale and the event, however, are not presented as criminal or malicious. The water dances and glows with lugubrious jellyfish and fantastic phytoplankton, and the perpetrator seems to add stars to the sky with his splendid jump. In fact, the whale’s breach has become a hallmark image of the film with unforgettable aesthetic power. It reminded me of the beautiful mid-sea moon image in Joe vs. the Volcano. The digital effects and artistic composition of this scene, and of the entire movie, are mesmerizing and potent in their depiction of the theme. Life of Pi preaches the belief that we must embrace and live in this fickle and destructive universe as if we are trapped on a boat with a tiger.
The universe of the Life of Pi is much like James Joyce’s God of creation: He “remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.’’ The universe will always exist, but living within it, one can associate with two frames of mind: view it harshly like Pi’s father, as an ugly place of violent shipwrecks and animalistic killing that one is subjected to, or view it as a unified whole that is not right or wrong but simply is, and is beautiful, where one is a cog in the mechanism. By depicting unfortunate or devastating acts of nature with beautiful strokes of digital graphics, we come to believe in the latter view—the main theme of the movie. The horrendous storms are beautiful; the tragic shipwreck is beautiful; the drowning waves are beautiful.
I suppose then, that I have answered my questions. Is film a good vehicle for the story of Piscine Patel? Yes. Its principal messages and meanings—the truths of the work of fiction—are conveyed well and pleasingly by Lee. Was I engaged in the seemingly empty plot? Yes, the beautiful mise-en-scene, cinematography, and digital effects with their heady and effective meanings easily held my attention for the duration, and were explored inventively by the director. Quizzically, these aesthetic elements of the film seemed, in a way, to drive the plot on their own, filling the role of the actors and acts that fill typical movies. Go see Life of Pi, and view it as you would an evening sunset or a stunning woman: for its beauty.