A middle-aged named Pi (Irrfan Khan), recounts a particular moment in his life to a dried up novelist (Rafe Spall) in search of a revelatory story to inspire him to write once more. His story is one of miracles and unbelievable sights which he claims will make you believe in god by the end. He tells of a grand adventure that begins with a shipwreck that leads into a very unlikely companionship between his younger self (Suraj Sharma) and an untamed tiger named Richard Parker, where both must survive together on a lone lifeboat adrift for countless months in the middle of the ocean. As they learn to rely on each other for mutual survival they encounter countless wonders and many dangers during their extraordinary journey into the unknown.
Religion is a slippery slope in any form of media. Whether it be books, film or television, whenever religion is brought into the picture it suddenly takes on a whole other meaning. “Life of Pi”, the new film from director Ang Lee based on the Yann Martel novel, is a film that not only tackles the vast and complex landscape of religion in a way that is respectful to people of all beliefs but it does so by challenging us the audience with how we view certain circumstances based solely on what we want to believe as opposed to being told what we should believe. Nothing can truly prepare you for the visual majesty and deep emotional chasms that Pi’s fantastical journey will take you on. It is a story about an unlikely friendship that forms when all hope is lost amidst an open sea of hopelessness and how that friendship spurs on the need for survival in the face of adversity in all its forms. “Life of Pi” is a remarkable film that should be experienced by everyone of all age groups, of all ethnic backgrounds and of all creeds.
You have never seen a film quite like this before. The way it handles all the different facets of religion and its simple but extraordinary story of a person discovering who they are is done in an extremely refreshing fashion. This is a film that needs to be experienced, not simply described. To list out everything about it does it a great injustice, the same way a book is disserviced by having its highlights spoken aloud instead of being absorbed and contemplated while actually reading the written word. There are sights that defy description (although since it is based off a novel those descriptions most likely exist, but escape this reviewers ability to properly frame them) and emotional boundaries broken that have never been explored before. There were moments of impeccable beauty that are without equal, both in the masterful visual storytelling and the surprising amount of emotion brought on by the unlikely pairing of Pi and the tiger Richard Parker.
Their story is at once both heartbreaking and uplifting, but always remarkable. How they come to be on that lifeboat together is only the beginning, it is the time they spend together on the open sea adrift for what seems like months that truly sets the stage for what the film and ultimately, what this story is about. It could easily be explained away as a story of survival, how a young man outsmarts an untamed beast and was able to live far longer than any sailor ever could in doing so. It could also be seen as a coming of age story of how a boy loses everything only to discover himself in the process. But in reality this is a film about what you make of it, you are presented with a beautiful canvas and asked a single simple question when it is all over, what do you believe? There is no right or wrong answer, only what you believe to be true.
The earmark of an instant classic or any film that deals with larger than life scenarios or highbrow examinations of different theologies is that it stirs both the imagination and the soul. We are not only being shown marvelous visuals, we are being asked to look inward at ourselves and face who we are by a story that resonates with us on many different levels of consciousness. The genius of this approach isn’t so much in how it navigates such delicate waters of an individuals beliefs and understandings, but how it does so without ever preaching to the audience about one belief system over another.
We see in Pi’s early years that he actively searches out new religions of all kinds, Muslim, Christian and Hindu are only a handful of examples, and how he embraces each with a new respect towards life and all that it has to offer. Then when he and Richard Parker are both orphaned by that disastrous storm, when all of his beliefs, customs and principles are called into question, the film becomes this transcendent experience that anyone can relate to or at the very least appreciate. That is where the magic of “Life of Pi” lies, in its ability to have people of all faiths and backgrounds identify with this boy and his incredible journey.
This idea that a religion can and should be questioned, but never pushed aside recklessly, that each and every moment of our lives comes down to our perception of what led us to that point and what we decide happened is how it actually happened, those are the types of ideals Lee and Martel want to explore and they do it masterfully. Did you make that left turn because you needed to or was there some sort of divine intervention? There is no clear answer, there is only how you decide to view it and that is the beauty of this film and what it offers to us, the viewer. If you entered that theater believing one religion or belief over another or choose to not believe anything, “Life of Pi” won’t alter your perception one way or the other, but it will certainly give you pause the next time you think about denouncing another person’s beliefs or point of view.
If all this talk of religion and deeper meanings is scaring you off, don’t fret, for most of its religious undertones are hidden deceptively inside one of the most visually stunning and heartfelt films of the year. You may be asking how a film that takes place almost entirely out on the sea with a single lifeboat could possibly conjure up enough diversity to justify all the talk about its overwhelming beauty, but there is no reason to worry as Pi and Richard Parker’s journey together leads to them to wonders you won’t soon forget and emotional depths hardly ever realized with this much perfection. You will often be faced with a dazzling display of visual treats while also being asked to search deep within your soul to find who you truly are and the resulting impact is nothing short of awe inspiring, both in what you find in yourself and what you see before you.
Special mention needs to go to the animators and handlers of the tiger Richard Parker, for he is without a doubt the most impressive visual feat of the film which has no shortage of incredible effects. Not just in how seamlessly they integrated the digital tiger with the real one, but how they were able to breath life into the animal and make you believe every single moment we see Pi interact with him. The bond formed between them is one of the many triumphs of the film, it is both believable and impossible, yet constantly engaging to behold as Pi continuously (and comically) tries to either claim his place on the boat or find new ways around his sharptoothed friend in order to allocate the much needed supplies hidden away in the bowels of the lifeboat. Every single moment spent with them at sea consistently provides an incredible encounter around every corner that is unlike anything you have ever seen or experienced before.
There is also a surprising amount of humor to be found throughout the film as well and even more surprising is that none of it is at the expense of any one particular religion…well, maybe a little. But it is all harmless fun that most will be able to brush off and laugh at without regret. Much of the humor however comes from the interactions of Pi and Richard Parker. It is a far cry from a laugh riot but the comedy is just enough to alleviate many of its more hard hitting emotional moments and helps keeps things light for the younger crowd which is in keeping with its surprising PG rating.
There isn’t much left to say without giving away all the film’s many secrets which are better left for you to experience and enjoy first hand. You will not find a more magical film this year, there is no doubt of that. Films like this are what we go to the movies for, seeing this on a television screen (no matter the size) could never do it justice. Its not often a film gets the moniker of instant classic, but it deserves nothing less than to be labeled as such. As to whether or not it will actually make you believe in god is anyones guess, however that is exactly the point of the film isn’t it? It’s for you to decide what you believe in the end and up to you to determine which outcome works for you, and that is the true magic behind “Life of Pi”.