Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Life of Pi

I am told by those who know about such things that this film is a faithful retelling of Yann Martel's 2001 novel. I had seen the trailer and read some of the blurb, but was still unsure of what to expect from a film that centres on the 14 year-old Pi marooned in a lifeboat on the Pacific for 227 days with a Bengal Tiger called Richard Parker!

In one sense this is a straightforward biography - albeit a work of fiction. Indeed it would be possible to view the film as a factual and bizarre account as so much of it is firmly rooted in a recognisable reality. However, so much of it is rooted elsewhere that this seems a very unsatisfying option. Much is made of the origins of Pi - Pondicherry, a former French colony in Southern India. Religions play an important part as Pi embraces Hinduism and then adds Christianity and finally Islam to his repertoire of faith. On top of this is a blending of cultures - French, Indian, Japanese, and Canadian and their respective languages. There are also many strands of science - zoology in particular, which beg questions of an evolutionary nature. the ethics of survival are explored when cannibalism is mentioned! All of this is wrapped in a covering of philosophising which prompts a steady stream of questions - at least it did for me. This multi-layering of story-telling vehicles, demands that Life of Pi should be read more as a allegory than as a straightforward biography. It invites reflection, interpretation and conversation. What did you see?

First and foremost the film is about the journey of life and our search for a sense of meaning in both the journey and our intended destination. The Eastern openness to a multiplicity of deities which frustrates so much Western evangelism is beautifully portrayed. Pi's father's commitment to rationalism and scientific method is a bold vote in favour for the Enlightenment Project. The physical arc of Pi's journey from India via a Japanese freighter, the Pacific Ocean and Mexico could emphasise the global village in which we all live -  particularly as Pi ends up in ethnically and culturally diverse Canada.

The central question for me was one of self-identity in the face of metaphysical enquiry - if God is God, who am I? If we are to understand Pi's original travelling companions of the Hyena, Orangutan, Zebra and Tiger metaphorically, then great significance must be placed on the process by which Pi first confronts and then tames the Tiger so that he and it, can peacefully co-exist.

The Eastern world has a much thinner divide between the physical reality and non-physical 'unreality' - to such an extent that they intermingle and can easily look one like the other. This blurring of reality with unreality - or fantasy - is the central mode of story-telling that Martel employs. Or was it all a device invented by Pi to maintain his sanity for 227 days which for him became a reality?

Ang Lee's Direction is masterful as is his deployment of animatronics and CGI. Yes, you can see a mechanical Tiger lurching unconvincingly at times and yes the CGI waves sometimes don't rise and fall naturally - but in a way I didn't mind as that simply added to the fantasy dimension. The acting is very good and Suraj Sharma turns in a great performance as the teenage Pi.

As you may have gathered, I rather liked this film - pure escapism - but in an engaging way. Very clever story-telling and very artistic film-making. After Pi has told his different versions of what happens he asks his listener which version he prefers. When the listener offers his view, Pi responds "and so it goes with God" which for me confirmed that this is first and foremost a theological film! I'll give it 8/10.

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