If the recent crop of films on the topic have proven anything, it’s that it is exceedingly difficult to make great cinema about God and religion. All too often, the projects trip up on the preachiness that necessarily follows, or worse, fail to make any sort of moving connection between the larger question of the almighty and the people who find themselves caught up in the very human complications that come with attempting to answer such questions. How do you visualize that which is as unfilmable as unfilmable gets? How do you tell the story without dwarfing or aggrandizing the subjects? It’s hard enough to talk about God in general, so how do you capture a meaningful transcription of such a conversation on film?
In his adaptation of the best-selling novel “Life of Pi,” director Ang Lee sets out to prove that it is indeed possible to produce a competent film that touches on theology and humanity without sacrificing personal storytelling for overall thematic thrust. The film tells the story of Piscine Patel, an Indian boy whose parents own a zoo. Following his father’s decision to move the family to Canada and sell the animals, the Patels set out on a freighter journey across the ocean. While at sea, a storm strikes and sinks the ship, killing all onboard except for Pi and a few animals who manage to hop into a lifeboat with him, including a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Before long, only Pi and the tiger remain on the boat (the zebra, the monkey and the drugged-up hyena don’t fare so well against a cranky Mr. Parker), and the two are forced to coexist while Pi attempts to get back to land.
While this on its own would certainly make for an interesting enough film, “Life of Pi” takes special care to contextualize the tale in relation to the religious and philosophical turmoil with which Pi has struggled throughout his life. Though raised Hindu, Pi takes a deep interest in Christianity and Islam (shown through flashbacks), which frustrates his scientifically-inclined father. In one scene early in the film, Pi sneaks down to the tiger’s enclosure to feed Richard Parker, only to be caught and scolded by his father. Pi argues that animals have souls and his father disagrees, claiming that people can only see themselves reflected in the eyes of what are inherently savage creatures. This interaction introduces the film’s interest in the dichotomy between spiritual and rational interpretation, which shapes much of the trajectory of Pi’s spiritual journey.
The first, and easiest, way to praise the film lies in the magnificent visuals, which have astounded audiences since the debut of the movie’s first trailer. Lee paints the ocean as an organism of astounding ferocity, unforgiving desolation, and tranquil quixotic beauty. It is in this way that “Life of Pi” paints its conception of God: the force that connects the soulful emotional intricacies of man with the blistering majesties of nature, manifested in the glory of the glimmering twilight ocean and the unforgiving violent fluidity of the animal with whom Pi shares his lifeline.
The cinematography in the film is nothing short of breathtaking, simultaneously embracing and isolating its shipwrecked protagonist as he drifts across the sea. At times Lee films from above, forcing his viewers to contemplate their role in the story and to ask whether, as storytellers ourselves, we have any power to save Pi.
In order to capture the novel’s first-person narrative, which lends the story much of its emotional weight, Lee introduces a framing device wherein an older Pi recounts his story to a curious writer. While at times the cut-aways waylay the momentum of the main story, the device also reminds the audience of the film’s theme of storytelling, which at times slipped too far below the surface in the text.
“Life of Pi” is fundamentally interested in the connection between God and storytelling, narrative as a bridge between the overwhelming creations of the universe, and the subtle microcosmic emotional constructions in which each of us indulge in our own histories. Lee, through his alternating expansive shots of the abandoned young Pi and tighter shots of the older Pi telling his tale, argues that there is no way to adequately discuss either the grand questions of theology or the minute concerns of humanity when one is severed from the other. Even the ecstatically capacious scale of Pi’s tale is necessarily folded into his existence as a lone individual; even the simplest acts, such as recounting an anecdote, elementally tether the individual to the grander living currents of the story, seemingly faded by years of memory.
It goes without saying that “Life of Pi” isn’t for everyone. At times, its singular thematic beats fall flat or ferment into didacticism, and the first stretch of Pi’s time at sea is bogged down by his constant narration. However, when the film hits its mark, when the gears of its ideas and its characters click together, it moves into more powerful territory than most films in recent memory.
I’ll be exceedingly surprised if the film doesn’t get compared to Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” which also attempts to reconcile the steps of divine creation with the more modest aspects of life. However, where “Tree of Life” finds itself mired in the denser aspects of its poetry and ideology, “Life of Pi” manages to discard its pretensions in crucial moments of character and better integrate its visual pursuit of theme into the overall tapestry of the picture.
“Life of Pi” doesn’t have dinosaurs, though, and if “Jurassic Park: The Lost World” is any evidence, when you put a T-Rex on a boat, you’re almost guaranteed some quality hijinks.