Throughout history, and definitely in the last couple of years, there have been films about faith, suffering, and religion which falter from the same problem that the Bible has. They are pedantic, heavy-handed, sermonesque (is that a word?), and worse of all… boring. Films like The Grace Card and The 5th Quarter (probably seen by none of you readers) have good intentions, but they simply take messages from the Bible and jam them down your throat. If I wanted that, I could go to church.
::: SPOILER ALERTS:::
For me, Life of Pi is the most elegant representation and explanation of how religion fits into the world in recent memory. And the message is beautiful. The thing is, you might have to be open to symbolism and metaphor to hear it. Jacob was not ACTUALLY swallowed by a whale.
The story begins with a writer talking to an older Pi, a man with a story to tell. Indian actor Irrfan Khan holds so much peace and charm within Pi that you immediately are drawn to him (Thankfully, Indian IDOL Shah Rukh Khan wasn’t cast as we would have to deal with his smarmy mugging). He relates the story of his life from the beginning — starting with the fact that he was named Piscine after a French swimming pool, given his father’s penchant for swimming in pools in every city that he has visited. Water is frequently used symbolically in storytelling to represent a change, transition, life giving, life taking, etc, and Lee uses it to great effect, beginning with Pi’s father’s swimming, and Pi’s given name.
The first act feels like a storybook fable, reminiscent of the style of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, occasionally Tim Burton (Big Fish), and by Ang Lee himself, who was able to draw in Western audiences to Eastern storytelling by instilling magic in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The telling is light and lyrical as it reveals Pi’s family and the zoo that he father created. And that’s the only way the story CAN be told to draw us into the completely irrational Act 2. Even the name Pi, which he renamed himself after relentlessly teased for Piscine sounding like “Pissing”… even that represents an irrational number… an irrational number with the rationality of the discipline of mathematics. He embraces the name so closely that he has memorized the number to hundreds of decimal places.
Pi grew up Hindu with millions of Gods, but both of his parents attended University and took pride in the rationality of science. But as he grew older, he was exposed to Christianity from a priest in a small church in the countryside. Pi’s brother, Ravi, dares him to go and drink the holy water (water symbol). Pi meets the priest who answers the question of why God sent his son to save the sinners (albeit with a rote answer), and then offers Pi a glass of water (!). Pi prays thanks, “Thank you Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ.” Later, he is drawn to Islam. “I challenge anyone to understand Islam, its spirit, and not to love it. It is a beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion.”
One night at dinner, as Pi prays blessings for his meal, while the rest of his family eats, his father tells him that he must chose one path. That he didn’t care if Pi believes something that he himself did not, but that he wants a child who has direction. Pi nods in understanding, and then tells his father that he wants to be baptized (water as transformative). This is the first indication that God and religion can be expressed in many ways, and still be meaningful to the believer.
The adult Pi tells the writer “Faith is a house with many rooms” The writer asks “But no room for doubt?” Pi responds, “Oh, plenty, on every floor. Doubt is useful, it keeps faith a living thing. After all, you cannot know the strength of your faith until its tested.” Again — so elegantly put. So poetic. And yet, many religions hammer into their followers that there is no room for question or doubt. And if you go back far enough, doubt was grounds for death — not very loving, is it?
Moving on. We are introduced to Richard Parker. You see, Pi’s family owns a zoo in the small coastal Indian town they live in. The zoo acts as a metaphor for religion, “certain illusions about freedom plague them both.” In the zoo, they had received a tiger. On the forms, the given name of the tiger, Thirsty, and the name of the hunter were swapped, and henceforth the tiger was known as Richard Parker. Not Richard. Not Parker. But, Richard Parker, now and always. Could the mistake be interpreted that written documents don’t mean anything when what is in front of you contradicts the writing? Could be.
Pi wishes to see Richard Parker up close, despite his older brother’s warnings. Pi takes some meat and puts his hand through the bars of the cage. Richard Parker appears down the end of the tunnel, slowly approaching Pi and the meat he holds. Their eyes meet. Richard Parker slowly opens his mouth… and Santosh rushes in grabbing Pi. Richard Parker tears away in the tunnel, startled. Pi is scolded as he tries to convince his father that he just wanted to meet Richard Parker. “That tiger is not your friend! It is an animal. The only humanity you see is the reflection of yourself in its eyes” (definite foreshadowing). To teach Pi a lesson, he has one of his workers tie up a goat to the cage and watch how Richard Parker stalks the goat and rips it through the bars.
As Pi becomes a teen, he falls in love with a young girl trained in dancing. But it doesn’t last long as Santosh announces that due to finances they have to pack up the zoo, go to Canada, and sell the animals to a zoo there. Pi spends his last day with his girlfriend, she gives him a bracelet. Older Pi tells the writer that he remembered that day vividly, but he does not remember saying goodbye.
On a Japanese cargo ship bound for Canada, the Patels and all of their animals suffer the hardships of being at sea with meat and rice forced on them for dinner (they are vegetarians) by a surly cook (Gerard Depardieu). One night, as they pass over the Marianas Trench, the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean, a violent storm rocks the ship. Excited, Pi tries to stir his brother, but to no avail. Pi goes topside to experience the angry side of nature with the lighting and howling winds. He looks down to the lower decks as crew hands try and keep things under control. A number of them are swept overboard, and the bow is flooding (water as a herald of death). The ship is going down. Pi tries to get to the lower decks to save his family, but cannot get to the cabin. Its already flooded. He gets back to the deck and crew throws him into a lifeboat despite his cries that his family is trapped inside. While the crew tries to ready the lifeboat, a panicked zebra leaps from the deck and into the boat, breaking its leg. The lifeboat gives way, falling into the chaos of the waves. Pi sees someone in the water and takes an oar to try and rescue the drowning victim. But as the boat approaches, Pi sees that its Richard Parker, who claws his way into the boat. Pi jumps off, and sinks low into the ocean. He turns and in an incredibly haunting image, he watches at the entire ship sinks into the depths. The lights disappearing into the murk with his family, his life, his past. He didn’t get to say goodbye.
And then Act 2 begins.
I won’t go through every detail of Act 2. But the gist is that Pi is in a boat with a zebra with a broken leg, an old orangutan, and a malicious hyena, who kills and begins to feed on the zebra, then kills the orangutan — despite all of Pi’s efforts to stop it from happening. And then, from under the canopy on the boat, Richard Parker reveals himself, killing the hyena and pulling it under the canopy.
Pi quickly builds a makeshift raft to be able to stay away from Richard Parker. Pi finds a survival guide (religious text?), which helps him through many situations but ultimately it gets taken in a storm, and he must put hope and faith in himself.
Through the story, Pi and Richard Parker become intertwined. Their very existence depending of the survival of one another. Together they face starvation, dehydration, breaching whales, phosphorescent jellyfish, near rescues, hallucinations of the depths of the ocean, floating islands with meerkats and meat-eating plants, and losing all hope. Pi’s insight is “When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain in both unbearable and trifling.”
At one point, during a storm, Pi gives himself over to God, as Christ on the cross, at which point, the sun breaks through the clouds, appearing to Pi the most beautiful vision in the world. The vision of God.
I’M WARNING YOU! SPOILERS!!!
Finally, Pi and Richard Parker reach the beaches of Mexico. Emaciated and worn, Pi falls to the sand. Richard Parker leaps out, stretches, and walks away toward the jungle beyond. Richard Parker pauses.
Pi reflects back that he was sure that Richard Parker would turn back one last time, but he did not. He disappears into the jungle. We come back to adult Pi, a tear streaming down his cheek. “I will miss Richard Parker”, Pi points out, “It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse….. All of life is an act of letting go but what hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.” All through the story, Pi never has a chance to say goodbye — to his girlfriend, to he family, and now to Richard Parker. And, like the number his name represents, there is no definitive conclusion.
Pi is taken into a hospital where Japanese representatives fly in to get a statement as to why their ship sunk. They do not accept his story. They need something that the insurance companies will believe. So he tells them a different story:
In the lifeboat, there was Pi, the Cook, a crewman with a broken leg, and Gita, Pi’s mother. The cook is clever and resourceful. He is able to fish initially, but as bait begins to grow scarce, he plans to cut off the leg of the crewman and use it for more bait. But that’s not all he used it for, and ultimately kills the crewman. Knowing what the cook is up to, Gita stands up to him. She tells Pi to go to the raft, and when he does, the cook kills her too during a struggle. Pi gathers enough courage and returns to the lifeboat to kill the cook. There is no struggle. The cook knows the evil he has done, and accepts the finality of his judgement.
The writer listens, and puts together that the crewman is the zebra. Gita is Orange Juice the orangutan. The cook is the hyena. And Pi? Pi IS Richard Parker. Pi has fairy-taled the story to be able to cope with not only the journey, but the death of his soul from who he had become. The total emotion devastation from Richard Parker so unceremoniously leaving, was because with Richard Parker’s departure was the loss of part of Pi himself. “Dare I say I miss him? I do. I miss him. I still see him in my dreams. They are nightmares mostly, but nightmare tinged with love. Such is the strangeness of the human heart”
But Pi turns to the writer and says “I have told you two stories. In both, the ship sunk. I lost my family. I suffered. Since it makes no factual difference to you, which story do you prefer?” The writer thinks, smiles, and says “The one with the animals. Its the better story.” Pi smiles back, “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”
Probably the most poignant statement about religion that I’ve ever heard. If a story cannot be proven to be one way or the other (the existence of, or the lack of existence of God), but the meaning is the same, then why not chose the “better story”. It doesn’t matter whether Christ REALLY resurrected, or if he did or didn’t have relations with Mary Magdelene, and even if his mother Mary had a virgin birth. It really sums up my deep belief that science should not be used to undermine someone’s faith, and that someones faith should not be threatened by the progress of science. The stories remain the better stories because of the universal messages they hold.
And finally, Pi, in allowing the writer to take on the task of writing his story, says “If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams.”
So much going on in Life of Pi. So much meaning and insight that had to be pulled from the “unfilmable” book and put up on screen. Ang Lee did such a fantastic job with such a daunting task.
The technical achievements are mind-blowing, and I hope that everyone will get a chance to see the visual effects breakdowns. The primary visual effects house, Rhythm and Hues has specialized in animals since the Polar Bear Coca-Cola commercials nearly twenty years ago. The technicians and artists have refined their craft over dozens and dozens of features requiring photorealistic animals: Babe, Cats and Dogs, Garfield, Marmaduke, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Yogi Bear, Golden Compass. A lot of not so good movies with astounding visual effects work. In fact, Golden Compass won R&H and VFX Supervisor Bill Westenhofer an Oscar — much to the confusion of the members of the visual effects branch of the Academy… but that’s another story.
But back to Pi. The CG and prosthetic work in Life of Pi is beyond breathtaking. There are lizards, monkeys, zebras, giraffes, tuna, flying fish jellyfish, whales, meerkats and the absolute crown jewel, Richard Parker. There are some people I’ve heard out there saying “Really? You believed that tiger was real? I could totally tell it wasn’t” And to that, I say “Bullshit. You’re an idiot!” The amount of verisimilitude present in Richard Parker is second to none at this point. There are a handful of shots where real tigers were used, with the majority being animated. I challenge ANYONE, including Bill Westenhofer, to pick out the CG tiger from the real tiger. And all you need to say is “Did you care about Richard Parker? Did it hurt to watch him near death or struggling in the water when he can’t climb back into the raft? Did you mourn as Pi did when Richard Parker leaped into the jungle? Did you smile when he comes bounding through the vines of the floating island when Pi blows his whistle?” If the answer to any of that is “yes”, then I could care less if you can tell if it was CG… and you’re still a fucking liar.
The reason Richard Parker is now the best CG character to date — knocking Gollum off his pedestal, which in turn knocks down Kreacher and Dobby from the last Harry Potter films, and Davey Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean:Dead Man’s Chest. The reason is something that Bill Westenhofer himself commented on. They were making a creature that was going to behave like THAT creature. In so many films before this, fantastic work goes into the look of a CG animal, and then it talks, or dances, or belches, or drives a motorcycle — or every single thing that ANIMALS CAN’T DO! The anthropomorphic transition these characters go through immediately cues peoples brains that they are not watching a real thing. THAT is why Richard Parker succeeds. He is a tiger, and he is animated to be… a tiger.
Richard Parker, however, doesn’t eclipse the incredible work the rest of the R&H team contributed, or the other studios such as MPC and my buddies at Crazy Horse Effects. The amount of water created for this show is obviously out of control. But every set piece is exceptional and beautiful: the sinking of the ship, the glowing jellyfish and humpback whale breaching through the phosphors of the glowing sea life is a piece of artwork unto itself.
But, nothing could have been accomplished without the vision of Ang Lee, who will be receiving a special award from the Visual Effects Society this year. Based on the 11 Oscar nominations, I predict Life of Pi will take Best Picture and Best Director. In fact, I will put money on it winning Best Visual Effects. Hands down.