“The Life of Pi” is a magic carpet ride of a movie, and one of the few
contemporary films in which its enormous cost and use of 3-D is
justified. The story as it is told, based the acclaimed novel by Yann Martel,
is completely improbable, but Ang Lee’s direction, at once discreet
and exuberant, virtually renders irrelevant questions of credibility, much of
which involve the excessive eccentricities in the plot.
However, though “The Life of Pi” can be enjoyed purely for spectacle,
it is much more than that. A core theme of relationships prevails;
between parents and children, humans and animals, beings and nature,
man and God, literal reality and fiction, reason and religion, life
and death, and finally, the physical and the metaphysical.
On the face of it, the screenplay by David Magee seems designed to
provoke the outrage screenwriting like Robert McKee, with their
notorious resistance to the use of explanatory, first-person
narration: “too literary!” However, even a McKee might not know what
to do with a film in which the main characters are a human and a
tiger, and apart from that, a hyena, orangutan, and zebra.
But quite admirably, the necessary narration explains why an
adolescent is stranded on a lifeboat with an aggregate of zoo
creatures, yet without becoming merely an illustrated story.
“Pi” begins modestly enough, with a journalist pursuing a lead about
an middle-aged Indian immigrant living in Canada named “Pi”, who
allegedly has an extraordinary history to relate. It is one which
begins with his father, who so loved a swimming pool in in France that
he names his son, “Piscine” (French for “pool”) much to the boy’s
embarrassment due to the word’s phonetic resemblance to the word
“pissing”. But it also foreshadows the boy’s fate to be immersed in a
much greater pool – an ocean – and beyond that, the “pool” of the
However, this embarrassment also motivates him to rise above the
teasing of his classmates by excelling academically. And he takes a
serious interest in religion after an encounter with a kindly Catholic
priest. But his restless nature results in him not only identifying
as Christian, but Muslim and Hindu as well.
One evening, over dinner, Pi’s tough-minded entrepreneurial father, a
rationalist cynical about religion, and who has forced Pi to watch a
tiger attack a live goat as a lesson in what constitutes the reality
of nature, informs his family that due to political instability in
India, they are relocating to Canada. Alas, Pi must bid adieu to a
girl, his first adolescent crush.
This heartbreak, however, is nothing in comparison to the trauma that
soon follows. While crossing the Pacific with his family and their
animals (and fellow passengers), a brutal tempest capsizes their cargo
ship. The only ones who manage to make it onto a lifeboat and survive
are Pi, a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and, as he eventually
discovers, a tiger.
Pi is now in the absurd position of having to fight for his survival
as well as that of three other mammals, at least two of whom are
hostile to his existence. Nature, with regards to Planet Earth and her
inhabitants, reveals itself to Pi at its most cruel, which ultimately
challenges Pi, a pacifist and vegetarian, to reconcile himself to his
own capacity for savagery.
Eventually, only Pi and the tiger remain. Due to an accident of
bureaucracy, the tiger has the name, “Richard Parker”. Pi, opts to
preserve his life, even if the tiger is not so sentimental about what
he would do to Pi if he could, and even if Pi has to construct a
separate raft for himself to avoid becoming a meal for Richard Parker.
The conclusion can be compared to that of “Atonement”, both the novel
by Ian McEwan, and its film adaptation, in that it suggests that the
creative lies of fiction serve as a means to reconcile oneself to
existence at its most painful. As T.S. Elliot said, after all, man can
only bear so much reality. There is much to contemplate in this