“Nice try, ‘Pissing'”
I’d love to say Ang Lee‘s Life of Pi is a masterpiece showing me the existence of God like how its titular character’s uncle explains it might to a writer seeking the subject for his new book, but I can’t. The reason, however, says more about myself than the film. Yann Martel‘s novel has been gorgeously brought to life by one of the greatest directors working today and its visual splendor cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, what makes or breaks its success isn’t its beauty, performances, or special effects—Life of Pi lives or dies by how devastating an impact its gut-punch of a reveal provides. I’ve simply become too jaded to accept its trick if it’s presented as a willful decision on the part of the story’s protagonist Pi Patel.
The device ultimately used to enhance Martel’s meaning of life, loss, and survival is one I love in pitch black, depression-inducing films. I’m left cold by its life-affirming message here. What made the book an international best seller is exactly why I cannot open myself up wholly to its magic. There is this wall my mind can’t scale because my naivety won’t allow me to comprehend the necessity of sometimes burying reality in order to cope with unspeakable tragedy. The fact of the matter is that I’ve been lucky to have never experienced such horrors in my life; I have the luxury of accepting truth because mine doesn’t hold moments of psychologically crippling impact.
It probably makes me a bad person to admit, but I’d more than likely call this film a masterpiece if Pi Patel was driven insane by what happened and as a result incapable of understanding the trick his mind plays with the events of his impossible journey. This is the sad reality my cushy life has built; a mindset believing tragedy can and should always be taken at face value to prevent it from consuming you. One needs to face his fears to overcome them, not push them so far into the recesses of his mind to transform truth into lie. Because I can’t relate to Pi on this deep, emotional level, I can only accept what he’s done as the actions of a weak-willed soul whose current happiness is nothing more than a façade.
Don’t get me wrong, though, Life of Pi is a great movie with a worthwhile message if you’re able to let it resonate without the baggage clung to by my analytical mind. It’s the tale of a spiritual young man possessed by an infinite wealth of optimism and the faith of three religions from which to cull together the best bits of each to form his unique union with God. Pi (played in exuberant youth by Gautam Belur and Ayush Tandon; adventurous strength on his Pacific Ocean journey by Suraj Sharma; and sage, introspective adulthood by Irrfan Khan) eventually loses everything he ever held dear in a shipwreck setting him adrift aboard a lifeboat with only a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker as company. God has abandoned him and yet he never lets go of hope.
Narrated by Khan to the aforementioned writer intrigued by his legend (Rafe Spall), what’s onscreen is presented as a firsthand account. Pi sets up who he was as a person before the unforgettable circumstances took over and we understand the motivations that made him the man he becomes. It would be easy to initially dismiss this first act of exposition as superfluity, but experiencing the life lessons taught by a religious mother and a pragmatic father are integral to believing the mental capacity necessary to survive the harrowing ordeal on the horizon. His ability to prevail against the isolation, insurmountable odds, and unlikely friendship with the carnivorous beast that once almost took his hand is shaped by a life built around a strong independence.
Pi must grow up rapidly on the water with only Richard Parker to serve as a companion. The tiger provides him a living, breathing creature with which to converse at and empathize about the futility of their situation. Theirs is an adventure taking them through bouts of starvation, false salvation, and a kindred acknowledgement that survival can only occur by remaining together despite the inherent danger. And as tragedy after tragedy strikes—demise of friends, loss of food stores, tenuous friendship bred from fatigue—their bond grows to the point of being indistinguishable from the other. Pi goes feral as etiquette and decency disappear; Richard Parker grows tamer once an all fish diet is instated. Their relationship is completely implausible, but it happened and Pi can’t help remember it with fondness and gratitude.
Until we look behind the curtain at what’s actually going on, the film plays similarly to Cast Away—a movie I never warmed towards. Besides Richard Parker providing a much more lucid partner than a Wilson volleyball, the major difference between the two is their aesthetics. Tom Hanks‘ isolation couldn’t grab me because I honestly didn’t care. Pi, however, is ferocious in his desire to get home and it’s contagious. The tiger is precisely rendered and completely believable despite being obviously computer generated and Claudio Miranda‘s cinematography is so beautiful that you could watch the movie on mute and still be utterly captivated. The water in certain scenes is as still as a mirror and long shots of the boat floating between a starry sky and its reflection are breathtaking.
Mix in a hallucinatory waltz of animals converging and breaking apart with an awe-inspiring moment of flying fish striding across the water with the neon glow of iridescent light when nature makes it available and the visuals become mesmerizing. Lee even goes so far as adding letterbox borders at times vertically and others horizontally so objects can enter and exit the frame in 3D. He has such a masterful control over the fantastical elements that it’s easy to forget how bright his newcomer star Sharma shines in an emotionally arduous role. Between he and Khan, Pi Patel becomes a fully realized character we can laugh and cry with. I only wish my soulless desire for dark despair didn’t push his journey of mental and physical perseverance just left of contrivance from being the master work so many hail it as.
 Pi (Suraj Sharma) and a Bengal tiger known as Richard Parker arrive at an uneasy detente in director Ang Lee´s LIFE OF PI. TM and © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
 Suraj Sharma makes his motion picture acting debut as Pi Patel, a young man who embarks on an extraordinary journey. Photo: 20th Century Fox TM and © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
 Pi Patel takes in the bioluminescent wonders of the sea. Photo: 20th Century Fox TM and © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.