Monday, December 17, 2012

Life of Pi

Grade: 85 (A-)

The film version of Yann Martel’s best-seller Life of Pi has been in production so long that many fans of the book gave up on every seeing it. Even after Oscar-winning director Ang Lee started filming, the material has defeated so many directors (roll call: M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuaron, Jean-Pierre Jeunet) that one might expect a fascinating but frustrating mess. One would be wrong. Lee’s Life of Pi is easily the director’s best film since Brokeback Mountain, a first-rate spectacle, and a moving parable about faith.

Piscine “Pi” Patel (newcomer Suraj Sharma) is an inquisitive young man in India who follows Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam without seeing conflict or contradiction in his practices. Pi’s beliefs contrast with those of his secular father, a zookeeper who doesn’t believe animals have souls. Pi’s father decides to move his family from India to Canada, where he plans to sell the animals and start a new life. When their ship sinks in the ocean, Pi is left on a lifeboat with an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and a full-grown Bengal tiger. Pi fights to survive while struggling to balance his spiritual beliefs with the harsh realities of nature.

First thing’s first: Life of Pi is absolutely beautiful to behold, with Lee using the same technology Martin Scorsese used on Hugo to greater effect. Pi’s journey on sea is arduous, but the gorgeous colors on display speak to the mindset of the protagonist (ably played by Sharma). The tiger is clearly a computer-generated effect, but the technology has clearly come a long way since Lee used it in Hulk, and this creature is more believable than the big green guy without losing his expressiveness.

The film is such a visually rich experience that occasionally the philosophical questions from the beginning get lost, and the transitions between sections are occasionally awkward. But the film’s purposes grow clearer as the film goes on (though those familiar with the book likely won’t need repeat viewings to see them), particularly with the gut-punch of an ending. Lee’s connection here comes less from spirituality but from storytelling, and the way he handles the ending speaks volumes about what’s important to him. It’s not about what happened. It’s about what the more moving story is. It’s ultimate meaning depends on what we take away from it. By that logic, Life of Pi has a far more complicated relationship with faith than its detractors give it credit. The film ultimately isn’t about the Big Answers, but about how people process the Big Questions, and why faith might be appealing even if the truth contradicts it. 

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