LIFE OF PI (2012)
Movie Review by William D. Carl
Ang Lee’s film version of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel, Life of Pi, is nothing short of miraculous. The director who introduced most Americans to the beauty and grace of martial arts films in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000) and took on gay cowboys in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005) has achieved a nearly impossible task in filming Martel’s masterpiece. The novel is a gorgeous rumination on storytelling, truth, God, and our place within God’s universe, hidden within the guise of an adventure novel. Lee has managed to film this adventure story without losing any of the beauty or depth of Martel’s musings. It’s a tricky move, and it could be Ang Lee’s best film.
A young writer visits a middle-aged Indian man, Pi (Irrfan Khan of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, 2005 and THE AMAZING SPIDER MAN, 2012), after hearing he has a story that will make him ‘believe in God.’ Pi fixes him dinner, walks with him, and relates his tale…the story of how he came to Canada and how he became the man he is today.
Piscine (pronounced pissing) Patel (played by newcomer Suraj Sharma) changed his name at an early age to Pi, for obvious reasons. Growing up in India within his father’s zoo, he communes with the animals while learning about God. Throughout his youth, he becomes a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim, never understanding how the various religions contradict each other; he only sees the ways they work in conjunction. Through this process, his idea of God becomes very real and very different from most people’s concept of a higher being. He falls in love with a young dancer at the same time his father decides to move the family to Canada. They will transport the animals from the zoo on a steamer ship and sell them to start a new life.
During the crossing, a horrific storm destroys the ship, killing everyone and leaving Pi alone on a 26 foot lifeboat with a crippled zebra, an orangutan, and a 400 pound Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker (the same name as a cannibalized character in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Case of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, “who survived a shipwreck only to be eaten by the men on a raft). Richard Parker makes short work of the other animals and turns his hungry eyes upon our hero, Pi. Most of the film involves the grudging respect each of these characters form for each other, with a brief detour on a deadly carnivorous island in the shape of the Lying Vishnu, the Destroyer. Pi raves against God, accepts the world as it is, becomes disappointed, marvels at the world’s wonders (including a stunning scene where a whale breaches above his boat after chasing bioluminescent plankton), and eventually survives the ordeal (obviously, since he is relating it to the writer.)
But here’s where everything gets truly interesting. How much of Pi’s story is true and how much is created in his brain? Does the truth make it a better story, or is the story good on its own terms? These are questions not easily answered, and the ending is challenging, especially to modern viewers who like everything spelled out for them in twenty foot letters. But it retains the amorphous truth of the novel beautifully, and we are left to form our own opinions about truth and the beauty of a story.
Speaking of beauty, LIFE OF PI is the most beautiful film I have seen since THE LAST EMPEROR (1987). Every single frame sparkles as if encrusted with jewels. The colors are so vibrant, they create a 3D effect, and the depth of vision in the 3D version is astonishing. This isn’t used for shock effect, but for a clear depth of vision that really puts you into a life boat on that sea that seems to stretch out forever. The cinematography by Claudio Miranda (CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, 2008 and TRON: LEGACY, 2010) is never short of dazzling. In India, the world appears as though a memory, an impossibly beautiful world. The carnivorous island is a relief after so much ocean, but the danger is always there beneath the surface. In the scenes where Pi speaks with the writer, the photography is flat, normal, dull, reinforcing the theme of storytelling as an art, as an act of beauty and creation.
As for the much-discussed special effects, they are certainly special in every way. At no point does the viewer wonder if Richard Parker or the other animals are CGI. They are as real as Pi himself. Every hair, every nostril flare, every drop of water is so real as to be hyper-realistic. It’s an amazing feat, and I believe it will win the Oscar for special effects. Rarely do special effects blend so realistically into the rest of the film as to become unnoticeable.
LIFE OF PI can be a heady brew for some with all of its references to various religions, deities, works of literature etc. It is also a grand adventure in the old fashioned Robert Louis Stevenson vein, suspenseful and often terrifying. How Ang Lee intertwines these two facets of the story make for one of the most brilliant and astonishing films of the year. It’s a nearly perfect jewel of a movie.
© Copyright 2013 by William D. Carl