Life of Pi
Life of Pi (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Doubtful whether their zoo in India will be profitable in the long run, the patriarch and matriarch of the Patel family (Adil Hussain, Tabu) decide to start a new life in Canada for the sake of their two boys’ futures. Once there, the plan is to sell the animals and recoup their losses so they hire a Japanese cargo ship. Four days since a stopover in the Philippines, the ship is caught in the middle of a ferocious Pacific storm. Pi (Suraj Sharma) wakes up, senses that something is wrong, and decides to walk around. To his horror, the upper decks of the ship is being bombarded by tumultuous waves and from the looks of it, the vessel is sure to sink within minutes.
“Life of Pi” is a rumination of spirituality, not necessarily religion, through visual splendor. Under a thoughtful direction by Ang Lee, the film embodies many elements that are vague enough to be inoffensive but clear enough to warrant questions about ourselves and the biotic and abiotic majesty around us. Despite one’s creed, lack thereof, or uncertainty, the glue that holds our relationship with the picture is that we are asked to identify, appreciate, and ruminate.
The first act is not consistently engaging but it offers important details about our protagonist. It spends too much time in terms of how Pi establishes his name among his peers at school. It feels tonally off-putting. It gives the impression that we are about to watch a comedy about someone who considers his name as a limitation and therefore must constantly strive to work against his self-consciousness, not a grand adventure about a boy who has been caught in a shipwreck and finds himself stuck in a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a tiger. However, when the screenplay by David Magee turns to young Pi’s search for wisdom by following Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism as well as what his parents have to say about his approach in keeping track of his beliefs, the picture begins to take shape and develop a voice. An air of comedy remains but there is a palpable sharpness and insight in its bones.
It is undeniable that its most memorable scenes involve Pi and an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The way they learn to respect each other’s existence is executed with a real understanding about what makes our two species separate. They do not interact enough and a relationship is not established; they interact too often and it might have verged on sentimentality. Notice that they make contact only when it is necessary to develop its themes. It can also be appreciated from a technical point of view. Which sequences involve using a real versus a computer-generated tiger in a frame? How is it filmed so seamlessly?
But questions as such did not even cross my mind because I was so immersed in their plight. Instead, I asked questions that related to the situation. Would I have killed Richard Parker if I had the chance? If I were a vegetarian, how long would it have taken me to surrender to my body’s needs and eat meat? Would I have had the courage to throw myself in the ocean and not put up a fight as it swallows me? With only the water and the sky serving as a backdrop, the questions it inspires us to summon from within are as deep and encompassing. Looking down, the water hints of a past and a representation of the present. Looking up, the sky is the same as our ancestors’ as they contemplated the future. I find it strange that despite the film’s healthy collection of colors and compositions, my favorite is something we can encounter every day: the sky’s reflection on water.
Based on the novel by Yann Martel, “Life of Pi” attempts and succeeds in something that very few succeed in, let alone attempt to do. Through its entertaining and thrilling visuals, it creates a world that may be stylized but not at all dissimilar to our own. Then it opens our minds and challenges what we think we know about ourselves.