Life of Pi
Piscine Molitor Patel has a story which, it is said, will make you believe in God. Yann Martel wrote the story in an acclaimed 2001 novel, and now Ang Lee has made it into a film: Life of Pi. Lee’s imagination provides fantastic visuals to accompany Martel’s fantastic story. Whether or not you it makes you believe in anything remains to be seen; what can be said is that it will make you understand why an intelligent, educated person might believe — other than mere superstition.
Patel (Irrfan Khan) tells his story to a writer (Rafe Spall) — who we may understand to be Martel himself — starting with his childhood in Pondicherry, in the former French section of India. We learn how he came by his nickname, Pi, after the Greek letter which I’ve found most Indian mathematicians pronounce the same as its Latin descendent; the filmmakers evidently chose to go with the more common American pronunciation. We learn how he became fascinated by all different faiths, practicing a mélange of Catholicism and Islam along with his mother’s Hinduism. And we learn about his family’s zoo, which had to be sold off.
The family arranges transport for their move to Canada on the Japanese freighter Tsimtsum — a Hebrew word meaning “withdrawal” — along with the animals being shipped to various North American zoos. Four days out from Manila, the ship capsizes over the Marianas Trench. Pi (Suraj Sharma) finds himself in a lifeboat with — at least at first — an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and an adult Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker.
What follows is an amazing tale of survival and wonder as Pi’s boat drifts across the Pacific. He is lucky to find supplies in the boat, but while he can survive on fortified biscuits, Richard Parker is going to want meat; fishing will be difficult given Pi’s vegetarianism, which is made clear in an earlier interaction with the Tsimtsum’s odious French cook (Gérard Depardieu). And yet, as long as there is life, there is hope.
David Magee’s adapted screenplay cuts out many of the digressions which add more texture and detail to Martel’s novel, though he does add a completely extraneous love interest in Pondicherry. It also doesn’t make as effective use of the framing device, which loses still more of Martel’s allegorical depth. The blame for the awkward audience hand-holding in the denouement, however, lies entirely on Martel, since it’s present in basically the same form in the original.
That all said, the printed word simply cannot match Lee’s imagery. Sequence after sequence out on the Pacific will fill any audience with awe and wonder. Even more impressive, the stereography is actually used to a positive advantage. It’s restrained and used mostly to provide a depth and texture to the most fantastic sequences rather than to throw stuff at the audience for cheap thrills.
For all its narrative shortcomings, Lee’s film provides a marvelous companion piece to Martel’s novel. And this should hold in either order; don’t let the fact that you have not yet read the book yet stop you from seeing the movie while it’s in theaters. Knowing the basic story will not spoil the experience.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.