ang lee’s take on yann martel’s acclaimed novel is the rare kind of film that i appreciate considerably more than i did the book. where the novel struggled to keep my attention, oscillating between heavy-handed philosophy 101 and perplexing (read: badly written) magical realism, the film maintains a focus that balances the allegorical and real in engaging and precise fashion (proving ang lee’s director oscar was well-deserved). furthermore, the book’s final act felt rushed and illogical, as if martel let himself off the hook from providing a satisfying conclusion. ang lee has managed to craft the same ending into a resolution that not only feels justified, but inevitable, and elevates martel’s cop-out into a profoundly moving denouement.
for me, a film that asks the “big” questions is almost destined to fall flat (note: please know i just cracked my knuckles and rolled my neck to be fully prepared for the pretentiousness i’m about to write). i was a philosophy double major in university (my other degree being theatre [surprise!] please applaud my forward thinking practicality). i studied philosophy because at that period in my life i was asking the “big” questions as if my life depended on it. academic study of philosophy isn’t nearly as romantic as i had hoped. where i anticipated sitting in dusty libraries positing theories about our responsibility to the universe, in truth my college life was made up of hundreds of late night coffee/tobacco-fueled, paper writing evenings, scouring brain-numbing texts on nominalism and anthropocentrism. needless to say i was left unsatisfied, and to foment a philosophical life that had variously been attached to buddhist, hindu, daoist, and sufi spirituality, i traveled to india where i remained for several months, even at one point quite seriously contemplating becoming a vaisnava monk. i obviously didn’t choose that life path in the end, feeling i had too much to say artistically to remain a hermit in the remote holy villages of india, but the impressions upon my personality and spiritual heart were deep (i have since taken a second trip to india and spent too much time addling my brain with philosophical/spiritual nonsense).
this is all to say that the journey of a character like pi is very near to me, as i’ve found myself shifting my spiritual center repeatedly (dear god, ask me what i believe these days, and be prepared for a dissertation that will make you wish you’d never asked) and for a film begging these questions to work for me it requires a delicate vision. my patience for sentimentality in regard to spirituality is paper thin, and ‘life of pi’ just flirts enough with the overwhelming emotion of the spirit without ever becoming saccharine. it isn’t ever overly deep or inaccessible (this isn’t my intolerable NYU ‘metaphysics’ class) but at the same time isn’t fluffy “there’s-something-bigger-than-you” schmaltz. it is to the point, simple, and ultimately very honest.
the central performances are uniformly brilliant. irrfan khan (adult pi) and suraj sharma (young pi) are straightforward, focused, and both have moments of deeply moving truth (as a long time vegetarian, for health, ecological, and spiritual reasons, young pi’s reaction to the killing of a fish to feed richard parker [the bengal tiger he is living with on a lifeboat] hit home as one of the most truthful moments i’ve ever seen on film). and what of that tiger? considering richard parker is brought to life mostly through the magic of cgi and the imagination of sharma and ang lee, it is astounding how compelling a scene partner he becomes for young pi. and adult pi reminiscing about his relationship with richard feels entirely real, the emotion and sadness he expresses being one of the many highlights of the film. in short, ang lee has done a masterful job, taking (in my opinion) less than stellar material and making it into a neat and stirring discourse on love, reality, and the direction of the spirit.
in 2010 i sat at the base of a mountain in a remote village in india, feeling a sadness so profound i would have quite happily sat there for the rest of my life had someone given me the option. i simply had no direction. i’d spent more than half a decade of my life devoted to the whims of dc theatre, feeling that while i’d achieved a modicum of success there was something distinctly missing. it wasn’t as if i wasn’t putting effort into my search for meaning or purpose, i was relentlessly exploring my inner emotions, both onstage and off, and was still reeling in terms of reaching any conclusions. there is a moment in ‘life of pi’ when a storm rages, pi has been stripped of just about everything except his life, he is hungry, lost, and alone (aside from the company of a ravenous tiger). throughout the film richard parker has made the space under the canopy of the lifeboat his den, and pi has been relegated to a makeshift raft tied to the boat, and in this scene pi breaks free from the constraints of this new truth and fully surrenders. we watch pi in seeming madness, strip away the canopy to expose richard parker to the winds and rain, we watch the tiger fumble around in the cold and wet, a helpless, flustered animal stripped of all the artifice of power, and pi relishes the opportunity to call to everything (god? perhaps) and simply surrender to the will and movement of the universe. while my moment in india in 2009 was decidedly less dramatic than this, the scene echoed every sentiment, every emotion, every question i had on that day. the rage of the unknown, the deep sadness and fear of the tiger (a startling metaphor), and the unqualified joy of releasing the illusion of control, it was all expressed in a few moments of storytelling. and i have no shame in admitting, i wept, both then and in the dark of the movie theatre.
what i realize as i write this is that i actually can’t write about this. as much as i feel i may have expressed in evaluating my experiences with this film, the film exposed how cut off from my own honesty i am in regard to my spiritual life. ‘life of pi’ asks ‘what is the better story?’ and i don’t want to contextualize or offer any further thoughts on that question, i’d rather just let it be.