Dir. Ang Lee. USA. 2012.

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According to Yann Martel, author of the Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi, “If your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.” In the film version of Life of Pi, the fearful opponent is a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (explained in the film) and its worthy adversary is a teenage boy (Suraj Sharma) trapped in a lifeboat in the middle of an unforgiving ocean. For Pi, fear is the ingredient that is both his enemy and the friend that keeps him alive and helps him to maintain his faith.

Directed by Ang Lee and adapted for the screen by David Magee, the film is an adventure story in the mold of Robinson Crusoe, a testament of faith, and a philosophical Rubik's Cube that will keep you awake pondering its meaning. Whatever meaning you ultimately bring to it, the film is a sumptuous visual experience that combines a dazzling combination of state-of- the-art 3-D and CGI technology to breathtaking effect. The adventure is framed by the adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) relating his incredible story to a Canadian journalist (Rafe Spall), sent by a friend to listen to a story that “would make him believe in God.”

As a young boy Piscine Molitor Patel (Ayush Tandon), the son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, India, shortens his name to Pi to avoid being teased at school. Pi is a spiritual seeker who attracted to Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity and has even studied the Jewish Kabala. Pi's embracing of all non-conflicting religions mirrors is rejected by his parents whose philosophy is secular, and his father Santosh (Adil Hussain) challenges his son to make hard choices in life. "Believing in everything,” he says, “is the same as believing in nothing," Santosh is a hard taskmaster who graphically demonstrates, after Pi attempt to feed the Bengal tiger in their zoo, that wild animals are not your friend and will kill you without a moment's hesitation.

Unfortunately, hard times fall on the family and Santosh must sell the zoo and take the family and some of the animals to Winnipeg, Canada aboard a Japanese cargo ship. When an unforeseen storm batters the vessel, all members of Pi's family and the ship's crew are lost at sea. Pi is the only survivor and clings to a lifeboat accompanied by a hyena, an orangutan, and the huge cat, Richard Parker who climb aboard. The young Pi witnesses the survival of the fittest and soon finds himself alone in the middle of the ocean with a ferocious tiger. The terror of the shipwreck is made real in a visceral 3-D experience of the raging water, thundering in surround sound.

The central portion of the film depicts the day-to-day effort of the boy to tame the tiger and provide enough food for both to survive their over 200-day ordeal. The magic of technology produces beauty as well as terror in scenes of the ocean at night with the boat wandering alone beneath the stars, a cadre of flying fish, luminescent jellyfish, and a leaping whale. Whether or not you believe that the boy is really in danger aboard a boat with a man-eating tiger does not detract from the sublime feeling of connection with nature that the scenes engender. To add a surreal aspect to the adventure, the two companions find themselves on a strange floating island overrun by a colony of African mongoose known as meerkats that allows Pi to gather more food for his return to the sea.

While the film's coda puts a slight damper on what we have just seen, the questions it raises are central to the film's message. Contrary to the opening invitation to the writer to research Pi's story because it would “make him believe in God,” Martel says that, “God is not IN the story, but that God IS the story,” and challenges the viewer to choose which story to believe, the one we have experienced for almost two hours or the alternative story that Pi tells Japanese insurance investigators. According to the author, “Stories are important, because everything is in how we perceive it and nothing is really real until we say it is, so why not choose the better story?”

In my view, what Martel is saying is not that we should choose the better story because it provides a palliative by keeping pesky reality away, but because it offers the context for a richer experience of life. Did the Hanukkah candles really burn for eight days without oil? Did the Buddha really live? Did Christ? We can never know for certain, but ultimately it may not matter if the impact of the stories can lead to a true spiritual experience, one that is touched by love whether or not you believe it or have a Bengal tiger along for the ride.


Howard Schumann

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