Turning Yann Martel’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about a young man’s unforeseen trek with a tiger into Ang Lee’s stunning piece of celluloid takes more than CGI tricks to get into the depths of what the film is all about. This visually extraordinary film is more than just that. Themes such as faith, survival, ritual, hope, and courage all delve deep within us… but ultimately journey of self is what Life of Pi is all about.
The story begins of a man named Pi, self-shortened from Piscine Molitor Patel (played brilliantly by Irrfan Khan), recounting his journey about being lost at sea with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. He tells this “story” to an enthralled writer (Rafe Spall) who is interested in publishing it. Throughout the film’s flashback, teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) battles the elements: storms, starvations, Parker, sea creatures, and even his own wits in order to survive the torturous fate after losing his family and everything else he has during an excursion to a new life in Canada.
What keeps Pi’s spirit alive? Is it his belief in God? We see his self-taught education as a youth back in India. His meshing of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity instill not only a passion of a higher being, but doubts against them as well. His faith is tested throughout the journey and seemingly through the remainder of his life. Conflicting struggles of his belief are always with him. In the telling of this odyssey Pi notes that “religion is the new darkness”. Conversely, his father explains to a younger Pi that “you do not know the strength of your faith until it is tested.” There are even moments when Pi is ready to succumb to the hardship on the boat and allow God to take him away, to end his suffering. He doesn’t understand why God has allowed him to continue and endure the next test for survival. He is continuously challenged not only to survive, but also in his faith in a higher being.
The inclusion of many religions adheres to the questions Pi has of what is right or wrong. What is truth or myth? The vision of this single story representing different cultural perspectives, seen as one wishes to see it, seems to be the film’s point. A poignant theological moment in the film happens when young Pi and the tiger share with one another what they see within the night sky. Earlier in the film Pi’s father warns of staring into the eyes of a tiger, explaining that one will only see the reflection of one’s own belief. Is Pi only seeing what Parker does, or was his father, his familial Jesus, wrong? Pi at an earlier age had great doubts about Jesus, calling into question his actions. As Martel does in his novel, director Lee continues these challenges to the cinematic audience. Is there a God, and if so what is his plan? Is there reason for any of us to scrutinize what is give to us on our planet, or just to live, endure, and ultimately succumb to what is given? Pi poses the question to the interviewer (and us), “Which of these versions do you like most?” For what we believe is crucial to our journey as humans.
In mathematics, Pi’s irrational numeric value speaks volumes to film’s theme. Its never-ending journey to an impossible end coupled with the significance of use is in every one of us. In Life of Pi, his journey is full of challenges, hope, successes and unanswered questions. It is a journey we all must take, unfortunately without the brilliance of a computer-generated tiger.
Jack Ferdman is a Toronto film critic with an extensive arts education. He has studied all aspects of film theory and history at York University and journalism at Ryerson University (both in Toronto), as well as completing the scene study program at Leah Posluns Theatre and Improvisation Program at Second City Theatre. He has written film reviews and essays for several Toronto publications including The Liberal, The Mirror, and The Ryersonian. He has also covered the Toronto International Festival on numerous occasions. He recently completed an 11-segment run hosting a weekly one hour online program, ENT World, which focused on movies and entertainment news. www.jackferdman.com
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