Life of Pi
Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi is a cinematic delight, in which narrative and aesthetics combine to create a hallucinatory epic. Following the life of Piscine “Pi” Molitor Patel, Lee’s version of Life of Pi is remarkably faithful to a piece of writing that has been previously described as ‘unfilmable’. The story revolves around the sixteen-year-old Pi and his survival in the Pacific Ocean after a shipwreck sees his family and their zoo animals drown. Clinging to a lifeboat, Pi is stranded at sea with only a zebra, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger for companionship. After the death of the orangutan and zebra, Pi and the tiger, named Richard Parker, are locked in a battle for survival in which ultimately each is in need of the other.
The magical realism of the book, a notoriously difficult genre to film, transfers wonderfully to screen, with the use of 3D technology being subtle enough to merit inclusion. It is Lee’s ability to capture the shifting tone of the novel that makes this film so powerful; the sea is presented in both its violence and its passivity. The malevolence of the storm, one senses the willful agency of its wanton destruction, is contrasted with the still calm that ensues. Indeed, in one of the most beautiful images of the film, we look down upon the glass-like ocean, the stillness punctuated only by the image of the lifeboat as it drifts lazily across both the water and the reflected clouds.
However, the film is far more than simply a sensual wonder. Plaudits must go to first-time actor Suraj Sharma, whose portrayal of Pi Martel is spellbinding. Considering that for large parts of the film Sharma was not only acting without other people but, since the tiger is a CGI creation, without anything opposite, his ability to elicit from his own expression such a range of emotions deserves recognition. There is no doubt that this film heralds the emergence of a singular talent whose involvement in cinema will not end with Life of Pi.
The film retains, at its conclusion, the most fundamental philosophical exercise of the book. Having recounted his tale of survival to two Japanese insurers, who are investigating the fate of the cargo ship, Pi offers an alternative history to the incredulous men. In this one, the roles of the animals are taken by figures from the ship and a tale of brutality emerges, in which Pi’s own mother is killed by a savage, cannibalistic cook. Visibly stunned by this revelation, Pi asks the men which story they prefer; they choose the animal one.
In forcing us to question the nature of truth, Life of Pi reminds us that what we believe is not necessarily what happened, but more often what we would like to have happened. In a famous thought experiment, Schrödinger asked us to imagine a cat inside a box. He then stated that, owing to a small radioactive substance inside the box, the cat could be killed at any moment but could equally not be killed at all. In conclusion, Schrödinger conjectured that until we open the box we cannot know if the cat is alive or dead, and, as such, we must imagine it to be both alive and dead. In the same way, Life of Pi does not offer us two competing stories but simply two different ones. Rather than trying to guess which is true, we should instead enjoy the beauty and horror of each as they exist alongside one another.
In the framing device that encapsulates the film, the now grown-up Pi tells a young writer, who has traveled to Canada to hear this story, that after hearing his tale it will be enough to make him believe in God. Whilst one is not supposed to be convinced by such theological arguments, both the book and the film are compelling evidence of the power of storytelling and its importance in allowing humanity to reflect upon itself.
W. J. Humphries