Wow! Just: wow! Life of Pi may be the most ravishingly beautiful film I have ever seen. It’s stunning. It’s gorgeous. Its visual inventiveness made me want to weep for joy. It is magical realism made magical and realistic. The palette of colours is extraordinary. You will feel you are in the sea and above the clouds and as if you are on a boat with a Bengal tiger too. Wow! Just: wow! But, weirdly, while enraptured by its look, its emotions never seemed especially pressing, and as for the spiritual journey, it didn’t exactly float my own particular boat. Is it saying a belief in God always makes life a better story than one without a God? That this is why we require faith? Is it advocating a Life of Pi-ety? I think so, but can’t say for sure, as I’m no professor of divinity or theologian although, given all the deep insights I have offered up to you over the years, I could understand if you thought I were one, the other, or possibly both. (It’s a common mistake.)
Based on Yann Martel’s Booker prize-winning novel, the one everyone said would be impossible to film, this went through several scripts and directors before it landed up in the hands of Ang Lee, who directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain (known as ‘Bareback Mounting’ in our house), The Ice Storm and the best adaptation of Sense and Sensibility ever, that one starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet before she was Kate Winslet, if you get my drift. Lee is a superb craftsman — everything in this has a glowing, otherworldly look — and has proved the book is possible to film, although whether it was wise to do so may be a different matter.
This tale is told via Pi as a young boy (Ayush Tandon), Pi as the teenage boy at sea (Suraj Sharma), and framed by Pi as an adult (Irrfan Khan) relating his story to a Canadian writer (Rafe Spall) and promising him this story ‘will make you believe in God’ (I think I will be the judge of that). Pi is the son of a zookeeper from Pondicherry in India. His real name is Piscine Patel, his first name coming from an uncle who loves swimming pools, particularly one in Paris. There is a vignette of the uncle who loved swimming pools swimming in that Parisian swimming pool, shot from the bottom of that pool, looking up through the water, that is so unexpected and delightful I would have taken it home with me, if that had been possible, so I could take it out on the days I felt blue about film-making, to cheer me up.
Anyway, Piscine is quickly nicknamed ‘Pissing’ by the other boys at school, so he changes his name to Pi which, of course, is also a mathematical equation with so many decimal points the human mind can’t get to the bottom of it. (I am no professor of allegory, just as I am no professor of divinity, but I’d bet my life Pi is allegorical.) Pi is the sort of boy who views the world with wonder and is insatiably curious. (What he most needs is a PlayStation. That always shuts kids up, in my experience.) And, mostly, he is insatiably curious about religion but, unable to choose between them, finds himself simultaneously practising Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, much to the consternation of his father, a rationalist. ‘Three more religions and you will always be on holiday,’ he tells Pi crossly.
However, Pi’s religious education is interrupted when the family decide to emigrate to Canada, taking their animals with them, but the ship sinks during a storm. Pi ends up the sole survivor aboard a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger called — for moderately amusing reasons — Richard Parker.
The biggest chunk of the film follows Pi’s fantastical adventures at sea as whales soar and flying fish hit him in the face and sharks circle and Pi struggles to survive, not that there is any real sense of jeopardy, as we’ve already been introduced to him as an adult. Shot in 3D — rather tiresome, actually; I took off my glasses halfway through and didn’t feel I’d missed anything, although how would I know? — this also uses CGI so brilliantly that the tiger feels as if he has stepped out of a Rousseau painting.
But what does it all add up to? Does the tiger represent the animalistic, violent side of Pi, which he would like to disavow? Is it about animals respecting each other’s natures? Is it about the entanglement of storytelling and religion, both of which require faith on behalf of the listener? So, while you are bathing in all the beauty, you are waiting and waiting and waiting for this film to say something, yet when it finally does — that truth is never as important as what you believe; I think that’s it — it all just feels empty somehow. Should we just go about pretending things haven’t happened? Really? Still, it is all very, very, very pretty, and you may well like it just for that.