When I first learned a film adaption of Life of Pi was in order, I was reluctantly doubtful. Although Life of Pi is one of my favourite novels – authored by Canadian writer Yann Martel, the winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize – I feared the movie might be tedious, given that the protagonist is shipwrecked for an extensive period of time. My concerns were calmed upon hearing that Ang Lee would be directing the film. Lee has a reputation for directing in a remarkably artistic manner, and Life of Pi was no exception. I was pleasantly surprised with the high quality of the film, both aesthetically and thematically. The irony of my initial doubt is now evident, given that my favourite quote from the novel suggests, “To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”
In a world where reason is predominantly the decision-making function of choice, Life of Pi explores the roles that religion, and more importantly, storytelling, play in our lives. The film introduces us to an unnamed writer, who serendipitously discovers that a man named Pi Patel, portrayed by Irrfan Khan, has a story he may be interested in writing. Khan projects a resilient sensitivity as the adult Pi, conveying his cathartic, perplexing and unfathomable story to the inquisitive writer, beginning with his childhood.
Piscine “Pi” Patel grows up in Pondicherry, a French region of India. His father runs the Pondicherry Zoo, granting him exposure to animals from a young age. Intuitive by nature, the young Pi takes a keen interest in religion, beginning with Hinduism. He develops a penchant for faith, and soon discovers Christianity and Islam. Although he is often ridiculed for practicing three religions simultaneously, Pi abides by his beliefs in an almost saintly manner. The depiction of Pi’s childhood was almost entirely identical to that in the novel. However, the addition of a minor character, Pi’s childhood girlfriend, was disappointing. The inclusion of her character served no greater purpose to the film, and seemed superficial at best. Fortunately, this adaptation was the only visible effort to alter the narration to abide by Hollywood standards.
Pi’s contentedness is threatened when his family plans to relocate by sea to Canada, where his father wishes to redistribute the zoo animals. Following a catastrophic sea storm, Pi finds himself alone, but alive, with four animals from the ship – an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and a fearful Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Pi’s survival instincts directly clash with his intuitively compassionate nature, and the resulting tension constitutes the main conflict of the story. Pi’s ability to empathize with his ruthless opponent, Richard Parker, is not unlike Stockholm Syndrome. This quality is unsurprising, however, as Pi’s refusal to conform is the essence of his character. In the novel, Pi recollects Richard Parker with “nightmares tinged with love.” Despite Richard Parker being the single greatest threat to Pi’s existence, Pi cares for him almost unconditionally, while struggling to maintain his sense of faith. In a particularly intriguing line in the film, the adult Pi suggests, “Doubt is useful, it keeps faith a living thing. After all, you cannot know the strength of your faith until it is tested.” Ultimately, Pi’s survival is a test of faith – one that tests the crux of who he is, and what he believes.
Life of Pi was an incredibly moving experience, likely due to its admirably faithful adherence to the original novel. I agree with author Yann Martel’s observance that the ending in the film was not as ambiguous as that in the novel; however, some uncertainty is conveyed nonetheless. Bollywood veteran Tabu and renowned French actor Gérard Depardieu portray Pi’s empathetic mother and the malevolent Cook, respectively, in small, but well-executed, roles. Suraj Sharma is exceptionally convincing as the teenaged Pi, conveying a haunting struggle for survival. Although I am not a proponent of the use of 3D in film, I could not help but appreciate the stunning visual effects conveying Pi’s experience with nature. In one striking scene, the Pacific Ocean is transformed into an amalgamation of starry elements, projecting a sensation of deliberate tranquility. Aside from the visual effects, the musical score by Mychael Danna was absolutely stunning. I was pleased to recognize an instrumental version of Édith Piaf’s classic French song, “Sous le Ciel de Paris,” beautifully crafted with traditional Indian music.
Overall, the film was richly poignant and incredibly unique, with only a few forgivable flaws. And for that reason, I give Life of Pi 4.5 stars out of 5.
Photograph courtesy of Flickr, found here.