Film Review – LIFE OF PI
Venue: Ster-Kinekor, Cine 2, Maerua Mall
Director: Ang Lee
Screenplay: David Magee (script); Yann Martel (novel)
Players: Suraj Sharma; Irrfan Khan; Adil Hussain; Gautam Belur; Rafe Spall; Gerard Depardieu
Nominated for distinction in the imminent Oscar awards, Life of Pi is a faithful and imaginative rendition of French-Canadian writer Yann Martel’s novel. The screenplay is strong, given that the entire story is essentially narrated, sometimes through voice-over, by the main character, Piscine Moletor Patel (Sharma), an Indian from Pondicherry. Piscine, who re-designates himself as ‘Pi’ during a senior school Mathematics class while proving that Pi operates into infinity.
The novel is the philosophical exploration by Martel, the novelist, of his own life – as he himself confesses: it is the result of his attempts to find ‘direction and purpose’ in his life.
Pi, his protagonist, is making the same journey – so that his 227-day trip on a raft and a lifeboat is in itself a symbol of the spiritual journey of self-discovery
The film pursues the same structure as the novel: a three-part story of which the middle section is by far the longest and deals with Pi’s traumatic trip with a tiger, Richard Parker. Ang Lee successfully retains the whimsical humour of the novel as Pi explains very simply the unfortunate choices and consequences of his own name and that of the tiger.
To understand the journey one does need to appreciate the first part of the story, which details Pi’s early life in Pondicherry and the revelations which change his life from the age of 14. Subservience to the slights of Fate had characterised his early years but two events develop simultaneously: he successfully rids himself of his nickname ‘Pissing’ Patel, a corruption of ‘piscine’, the French word for ‘swimming pool’. The second is his profound desire to understand God, which he explores through his native religion Hindu, but also through exposure to Christianity and Islam. As a teenager, he can do no more than appreciate the merits of each religion.
The tiger, Richard Parker, mistakenly named for the seller of the tiger instead of its designated name ‘Thirsty’, is as powerful a character as Pi himself. When the Japanese freighter bearing the Patel family to Canada in the year 1977 is capsized in a storm, Pi finds himself adrift by accident in a lifeboat, initially with a wounded zebra, a hyena, and an orang-utan. There is no sign of tiger Richard Parker but the boy sits helplessly on the tarpaulin at one end of the boat to watch the laws of Nature in operation: the hyena attacks and kills both the zebra and the orang-utan before the tiger makes its appearance from beneath his feet to kill and devour all the animals.
Pi’s emotional, psychological, and spiritual condition is often reflected in the outstanding cinematography in the film. The character of the sea is offered across a complete spectrum of mood possibilities; my personal favourite is when the line between sea and sky is obscured so that clouds are clearly visible in the placid mirror-like surface of a tangerine sea at sunset – as if they belonged there. The tiger’s conception is a mixture of 4 real animals and one that is computer-generated, but Lee insisted that the standard of digital re-creation must be exceptionally high and in this he was successful. The creature is visually magnificent.
The film, with its reversals and revelations, moves the viewer from humour to poignancy with ease. Pi’s journey towards physical salvation – and spiritual salvation on an allegorical level – is all-consuming so that Pi in the third section of the novel, now married with two children (Khan), has a face which reveals deep pain and suffering, lined and lugubrious.
This simple story is a message of faith and spiritual strength offered in a very palatable way. The fact that Pi offers two stories of his journey to the Japanese insurance investigators does not confuse the essential message. When Pi asks the investigators which story they prefer and they respond that they prefer the story of the tiger, Pi responds, ‘And so it is with God’. In the alternative story, Pi is the tiger, Richard Parker. Both find salvation. If Pi is the tiger in the alternative version, we are left in no doubt about the missing character. Life of Pi is a beautiful, moving film with tremendous integrity and dignity, which deserves awards and should be seen: few films have explored the notion of soul with such conviction and sincerity.