Life of Pi

December 9, 2012

in Movies

Film (2012)

Directed by Ang Lee

Screenplay by David Magee
based on the novel by Yann Martel

Capitol Theater, Arlington, MA

Cinematography: Claudio Miranda, Film Editing: Tim Squyres, Original Music: Mychael Danna

With Suraj Sharma (Pi Patel), Irrfan Khan (Adult Pi Patel), Ayush Tandon (Pi Patel, 11/12 Years), Gautam Belur (Pi Patel, 5 Years), Adil Hussain (Santosh Patel), Tabu (Gita Patel), Ayan Khan (Ravi Patel, 7 Years), Mohd Abbas Khaleeli (Ravi Patel, 13/14 Years), Vibish Sivakumar (Ravi Patel 18/19 Years), Rafe Spall (Writer), Gérard Depardieu (Cook)

Henri Rousseau, 'Tiger in a Tropical Storm' (1891)

Henri Rousseau, “Tiger in a Tropical Storm” (1891)
Courtesy National Gallery, London

An allegorical tale about a boy, a tiger, and a boat on the high seas.

An Indian boy, Pi, making his way to a new land, is caught in a boat with a tiger for a long time. This is the story of his ingenious attempt to survive.

In addition to having the obvious mathematical associations of an amazing and irrational number, the name of the hero, Pi, derives from the French piscine, meaning swimming pool, a tribute to the French influence upon Pondicherry, Pi’s home in India.

I saw this attenuated but nicely done allegorical film in sometimes spectacular 3D, though I did wonder whether that was really necessary. (There is also a non 3D version in circulation.) I first encountered this feeling about the family holiday epic when seeing Martin Scorcese’s Hugo a year ago. I also saw that in 3D; there were some nice effects, but, overall, I thought it was an unnecessary gimmick given the nature of the film. I would say pretty much the same thing about Life of Pi.

Irrfan Khan as the older Pi in 'Life of Pi'

Irrfan Khanas the older Pi
in “Life of Pi”
Photograph courtesy 20th Century Fox Film Corporation

The narrative is structured as a retelling of his tale to an interested writer (Rafe Spall) by the adult Pi, played effectively by Irrfan Khan. At first I found this narrative construct cloying, but after awhile it did not bother me too much.

Irrfan Khan has also provided many great performances elsewhere: as Sunil in HBO’s series about therapy, In Treatment (2010), and as Ashoke Ganguli in the affecting film (2007) of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake. He was also in Mira Nair’s now classic film, Salaam Bombay (1988), Wes Anderson’s wonderful Indian adventure, The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and in the Oscar-winning film directed by Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

Suraj Sharma, who plays Pi at the age of the main action and who we spend most of the film watching and listening to, is pretty amazing. I do not know how he keeps our attention so successfully, but he does. Obviously, having an incredibly realistic-looking animated tiger in the boat helps, and there are, as well, plenty of other aquatic dramas to keep us attuned. But, it is largely up to Sharma to keep us interested, in a film that, for much of its two hours and change, dwells on just his character and a tiger in a boat. He does.

Suraj Sharma as Pi in "Life of Pi"

Suraj Sharma as Pi in “Life of Pi”
Photograph courtesy 20th Century Fox Film Corporation

In the early scenes set in India, Pi’s father, Santosh (Adil Hussain), the keeper of a zoo, offers an education in tough love to Pi that is somewhat reminiscent, though not quite as unkempt, as that offered by the father to his daughter in Benh Zeitlin’s film, Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012).

Following upon this early lesson, the rest of the film operates effectively both as a tale of adventure and an allegory that travels closely in its wake. The allegorical subtext is quite affecting in the end, and the surprise, if one could call it that, aims right at questions about the nature of storytelling and of allegory themselves.

Lifelike animated tiger and Suraj Sharma as Pi on the boat in 'Life of Pi'

Lifelike animated tiger
Suraj Sharma as Pi
in “Life of Pi”
Photograph courtesy 20th Century Fox Film Corporation

In the face of a brutally harsh world, Pi confronts the nature of religious tales and explanations. Raised as a Hindu, has developed, early on, a serious interest in Christianity. This curiosity then extends to Islam. And, if the name of the ship in which he travels across the ocean – TsimTsum, which names a central idea in the Kabbalalistic philosophy of the sixteenth century Jewish visionary, Isaac Luria – is any indication, Judaism would not have been far behind.

Lifelike animated whale under boat in 'Life of Pi'

Lifelike animated whale under boat
in “Life of Pi”
Photograph courtesy 20th Century Fox Film Corporation

When we come to see how Pi evolves his own notion about what tales can do to confront a seemingly difficult and heartless universe, this story brings forth, during a holiday season, not only religious sentiments, but probing questions about how to deal with religious narratives.

As well, on a more literal level, it is an engaging story about self-reliance and inventiveness in the service of survival in the face of overwhelmingly challenging conditions.

– BADMan

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