Movie Review: Life of Pi
The Charlotte Observer
A character in Yann Martel’s novel “Life of Pi” tells us this will be a story to make us believe in God. The film version written by David Magee and directed by Ang Lee may do that – you’ll decide for yourself – but it will definitely make you believe in the power of cinema.
Sometimes that feeling is simple intoxication, as cinematographer Claudio Miranda (an Oscar nominee for “Benjamin Button”) overwhelms us with the leap of a whale or dazzles us with a buttery sunrise.
Sometimes it’s subtly sensual: India, long a land of magic for moviemakers, provides such an enchanting setting for early scenes that the onscreen credits rock and topple as zoo animals prowl among them.
But the sense of wonder, the ability to believe the impossible because artists dreamed it into form so beautifully and powerfully, is always present.
Questions of belief are what “Pi” is all about. Everyone agrees Piscine Molitor Patel – Pi for short – survived months at sea, after a Japanese cargo ship went to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean with his zookeeping family and the animals they were transporting to sell.
Decades later, the reflective Pi (Irrfan Khan) tells a young Canadian writer (Rafe Spall) a fabulous story that might’ve come from Hindu legend: His teenaged self (talented newcomer Suraj Sharma) spent the time in a lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker, which also survived. They had wild encounters with flying fish, storms, even a carnivorous island that offered a harbor to passers-by to destroy them.
The writer wonders how much of this is true. So Pi relates the grimmer, more credible story he gave to Japanese shipping officials after washing up on the Mexican shore. We can choose between them.
The movie avoids a lot of the grim, animal-on-animal violence in Martel’s book. Even when Pi’s dad (Adil Hussain) lets the tiger slay a goat in front of Pi to teach him the essential nature of predators, we watch Pi’s face, rather than the event.
Pi now gets a girlfriend for early scenes in Pondicherry, the Indian city founded by the French before they left. His simultaneous embrace of three religions – Hinduism, Christianity and Islam – caused contention in the book; in the movie, it barely raises eyebrows at the dinner table. Maybe this softening makes the film seem more of a fable, less grounded in reality from the beginning.
We know Richard Parker isn’t going to kill Pi. Because the life-or-death element has been taken away, we can concentrate on their relationship as it moves from animosity to wary coexistence to mutual dependence: Richard Parker needs Pi to get him food (or be his food), and Pi needs Richard Parker first as a stimulus – fear of him keeps Pi alert – and then for companionship of a kind.
Sharma, who had no acting experience, sustains the middle hour of the film by himself. (Well, along with a computer-generated tiger.) Amazingly, his performance is as varied and interesting as Tom Hanks’ acting in similar circumstances in “Cast Away.” (And Richard Parker makes a livelier foil than Wilson the volleyball.)
The tiger truly moves like a tiger, with a few exceptions where he looks as if he’s being shot from a cannon. His behavior matches that of the real tiger used for early zoo scenes; we quickly forget we’re watching a pouncing ball of pixels.
That’s the reason to see this picture: To let ourselves be fooled, to swim away from mundane details toward truths about ourselves and (maybe) God. By making “Pi” look as real as possible, the filmmakers get us to think about things we’ll never be able to see.