Up until this point, I have been reviewing the movies in the same chronology that my husband and I used in viewing them. With this review, I am skipping ahead to the last (and maybe final*) one we saw—LIFE OF PI. I want to capture my thoughts as close to the viewing of the movie as possible, since LIFE OF PI is a challenging movie.
First, I loved the book. I had seen the book in bookstores for some time, and finally decided to read it. And I absolutely loved it. I might have known I would, as I find every book that I have read which has won the Man Booker Prize to be singular and exceptional. So it was with Yann Martel’s LIFE OF PI which won the prize in 2002. But the book was one of the most thought provoking and challenging ones I had read in a long while. In many ways, the book is a kind of fable.
So, when I first heard that there were plans to adapt the novel for a movie, I was skeptical. There was so much in the novel that seemed beyond bringing to life through the visual elements of a movie. But, I was wrong—maybe Ang Lee is the only director who could have done it, but do it he does indeed.
So, what to make of the story? The plot—which I will eschew from summarizing in too much detail as to do so would “spoil” the ending—revolves around a young boy named Pi Patel. He lives with his father, mother and brother in Pondicherry, India. When we first meet the young Pi, he is tormented by his playmates because of his name—Piscine, which is eventually shortened to Pi. We also learn that young Pi has a deep interest in religion. While he is raised as a Hindu, he is also drawn to Christianity and to Islam. The level of Pi’s interest is not superficial; he is precocious in his desire to encounter God. This interest in religion is important, as it helps explain one of the meanings of the movie.
His family owns a zoo, which eventually his father decides to sell to help capitalize a move of the family to Canada. Some of the animals will be transported with them on the same freighter they take to sail across the Pacific. Among these animals is a magnificent tiger named Richard Parker—not a usual tiger name, but there’s a reason for that name: a simple mix-up on the shipping label for the tiger. The fact that the tiger has a human name is also important—at least I think it is, once you get to the ending of the book (and the movie).
Part way across the Pacific, the freighter encounters a horrific storm. Pi has awakened just before the ship founders and sinks, which is one of the reasons why he escapes. As the storm rages, Pi is practically pushed overboard and manages to make it into one of the lifeboats that is launched. Perhaps because of the storm, animals are loose on the decks, and Pi is soon joined by a zebra that crashes into the lifeboat. As the boat begins to move away from the sinking ship, Pi spots something swimming through the stormy water and realizes, to his horror, that it is Richard Parker. Pi screams NO, and we assume the tiger does not make it.
When the storm calms, we see Pi in the lifeboat, and the injured zebra—which broke its leg in the fall—cowering at the end of the lifeboat. Soon an orangutan is spotted, floating on a bunch of bananas, and Pi pulls her aboard. Then, a hyena pops out from under the tarpaulin. Just as things begin to get hectic—the hyena keeps trying to maul the injured zebra—we hear a sudden ferocious growl –Richard Parker somehow made it on to the lifeboat after all.
So begins the adventure of the perilous struggle for survival on the lifeboat. The zebra, orangutan and hyena are dispatched, one by one, until only Pi and Richard Parker remain. But, how to survive on a lifeboat with only basic food supplies and a Bengal tiger?
Somehow, Pi manages. He “tames” the tiger, provides food and water for him, and even reaches a kind of détente where he can feel safe with the tiger. As they drift across the Pacific, they encounter all the majesty and ferocity of nature. Here, Ang Lee’s directorial strength is on full display. The movie is one of the most visually stunning movies I have seen in a long time. I should note we did see the movie in 3-D. Very much the recommended way to view it.
After 227 days, Pi and Richard Parker finally wash up on the shores of Mexico. Pi is rescued by people (as he says “members of his species”) who find him exhausted on the shore. Richard Parker vanishes. While Pi is in the hospital, recuperating from his ordeal, he is visited by representatives of the Japanese shipping company who owned the freighter. They want to know why the ship sank. So they ask Pi about his experiences. After he relates his story, they look at each other incredulously, and then ask Pi to “tell them the truth, something they can believe.” So he begins again, and this time recounts a different story.
Upon hearing it, they are again uncertain what to think. So, Pi says—I have told you two stories about what happened. Which one do you prefer? Not which one do you believe.
Ah—there is a key, and the connection to the young Pi’s deep fascination with religion. For me, part of the meaning of the story (and, trust me, you will come out of this movie wondering “WHAT DOES IT MEAN?”) is that humans are on a quest to experience and understand God. There are several ways that people have done that. Are they all true? Is only one true? Is reality true and fantasy untrue? Or is fantasy true and reality an illusion? Sometimes it is preferable to accept what is unbelievable than it is to accept what is believable.
As a movie, LIFE OF PI deserves its nomination for Best Picture. Also, Ang Lee certainly deserves the best director nod. The other Oscar nominations it garnered are for cinematography and film editing—all of which shows in the visual feast that is LIFE OF PI.
Editorial Note: MINORITY opinion--my husband did NOT like LIFE OF PI, but he went with me because he knew I wanted to see it.
*Only two more movies to review--ZERO DARK THIRTY and ARGO. I plan to review them together. But, what about the rest, you might ask. Well, some we can't see--they are no longer playing in our area (Beasts of the Southern Wild)--AND some we don't want to see (Django Unchained).