It seems almost churlish to quibble over Ang Lee’s beautiful, big-hearted new film, The Life of Pi, based on the novel by Yann Martel, which I have not read. First impressions got off to a shaky start when I was charged £7.50 instead of the usual £5, because I hadn’t realised it was in 3D. My knee-jerk reaction to 3D is that it’s a gimmick, something no honest film needs. So I was a tad disgruntled as I sat down with the silly glasses and growled a bit, much like Richard Parker.
But The Life of Pi is stunning magical realism on 3D steroids, and I’m a sucker for magical realism. From Pi’s childhood in Pondicherry, as part of a family that owns a zoo, to his being washed up in Mexico, the birds, beasts, and fish erupt out of the screen. Not only that, the night sky is a velvet backdrop sown with stars, and the sea on which he floats sometimes disappears as a visual barrier, and we’re looking down into an ocean world. Eye candy of the highest order.
Pi is the thoroughly engaging narrator of this strange story, in which he survives a shipwreck while sharing a lifeboat with a splendid Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. Their relationship becomes almost symbiotic after some initial unpleasantness, imbued with a sort of Edenic innocence.
Pi is an enthusiastic religious bigamist, starting out as Hindu and adding the major world religions one by one. He’s looking for God and doesn’t think God would want him to be stand-offish when something new shows up. Pi also sees God in the eyes of Richard Parker, who keeps him alive during his ordeal by keeping him alert, resourceful, and aware.
The Life of Pi is a beautiful, visceral allegory about keeping your eyes and mind open. But the Japanese shipwreck investigators find his story impossible to believe. Their skepticism is a shock after living in Pi’s mind for most of the film. He has to give them a realistic and tragic account of his survival. And this account could well be the truth, with the animals on the lifeboat as allegorical representations of the original group of survivors.
It ties in with Pi’s search for God, which can be seen as a search for a better story. The film is quite explicit. He asks the writer to whom he’s telling the story which version he prefers. I’m not sure if this film is brilliantly subversive, or loading the dice in favour of the comforting story. It reminds me of something John Bunyan said in The Pilgrim’s Progress: Dost thou love picking meat, or wouldst thou see a man in the clouds and hear him speak to thee?
I think the film presents a false dichotomy. The world is a complex, beautiful place when seen through the eyes of rationality and science, as represented by Pi’s father. Hence my quibble. I will have to read the book to see if it’s more nuanced than the film.
That said, I highly recommend The Life of Pi.