Saturday, December 15, 2012

State of Wonder: Life of Pi

After the dullest year for movies I can remember in four decades of professional reviewing, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi restores the thrill of filmgoing. Adapted by David Magee from the beloved novel by the writer Yann Martel, who was born in Spain to French-Canadian parentsit tells the story of an adolescent Indian boy (played by a talented young actor named Suraj Sharma) who survives the wreck of a Japanese cargo ship and sails the Pacific on a lifeboat with a fully grown Bengal tiger. Lee’s approach to the material is to treat it like a fable, with lush, hothouse colors – the magnificent cinematography is by Claudio Miranda – contained within precise, sharply defined lines, and oftentimes magically layered imagery that’s accentuated by the 3D process. (During one shot, of a sky pocked with stars reflected in the depths of the ocean so that they suggest exotic blossoms living beneath the water, I had to restrain myself from shouting out loud.) Lee and Miranda’s influences appear to have been Henri Rousseau, Odilon Redon and perhaps the American painter Morris Louis; the style veers between symbolism and surrealism. Pauline Kael cited Louis in her review of Carroll Ballard’s masterpiece The Black Stallion, another fantastical story about a boy and an animal who are castaways from a shipwreck, and The Black Stallion is certainly the movie I thought about most frequently during Life of Pi, especially in the shipboard scenes during the storm that is the occasion for the ship’s destruction. (We never find out the cause of the wreck, and neither, to their consternation, do the insurance investigators who interview Pi after he eventually reaches dry land, in Mexico.) Both stories involve the training of a wild animal – in this case a dangerous carnivore in a severely restricted space – but otherwise they’re quite different, since Life of Pi is primarily a tale about faith.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that I fell in love with this picture during the credits, a montage of images of animals belonging to the zoo run by Pi’s father (Adil Hussain) in a botanical gardens in Pondicherry, India. The animals appear, usually (but not exclusively) in twos and threes, whimsically framed, and the glimpses we get of them almost seem choreographed. (A shot of gazelles leaping so rapidly across the screen that we can’t be sure exactly what we just saw are reminiscent of the deer in the woodland ballet sequence of The Yearling.) Mychael Danna’s entrancing music sounds like Indian pop played at an indolent pace, and the credits themselves are playful: when Yann Martel’s name appears, the left arm of the “y” dangles, mimicking the image on the screen of an orangutan climbing a tree, and Lee’s name glistens in a stream that also reflects the tiger, known as Richard Parker.

Suraj Sharma in a scene from Life of Pi
The story is told by a middle-aged Pi (played by the marvelous Irrfan Khan, whose deep, bulbous eyes may be the most expressive ones in movies just at the moment) to a novelist. (As the writer, Rafe Spall has a pleasingly modest quality – intensely engaged but self-effacing almost to the point of embarrassment.) As a boy – played first by Gautum Balur and then, for the main part of the childhood section, by Ayush Tandon – Pi is fascinated by religion. The Hindu gods are, he tells us, his superheroes growing up; his mother (Tabu) tells him bedtime stories from the Indian myths, a part of her own childhood that she keeps alive because her parents cut her off when she married a man they considered beneath her station. Her husband is a man of reason who tells Pi and his older brother Ravi that religion is darkness, but Pi finds illumination within it. And his faith is big enough for three religions: he professes to be not just a Hindu but also a Catholic and a Muslim. His father protests that believing in three faiths really means believing in nothing. Pi doesn’t agree; he finds elements of all three that enchant his imagination, and he loves the idea that God can present himself in different forms. Moreover, he claims that animals have souls – that he sees it in their eyes. (He is, of course, vegetarian.) When his father’s zoo acquires Richard Parker, Pi holds out his hand with a slab of raw meat in it through the bars of his cage; just in time his father pulls him away and then makes him watch the tiger attack a mountain goat so that he’ll never forget how dangerous wild animals are. Furious at his son’s willingness to make himself so vulnerable, he lectures Pi that all he sees when he looks in the tiger’s eyes are the reflection of his own humanity. When his father packs up the family to move to Canada, housing the zoo animals on the cargo ship for sale in North America, and Pi winds up alone on a life boat with Richard Parker, he learns to reconcile his understanding of the danger the tiger poses with his own idiosyncratic spirituality, which interprets the journey on the Pacific as a test set by God and the tiger as his salvation. In his view his fear of being eaten by the tiger keeps him alert and the necessity of feeding him gives him a purpose.

The novel is good, though occasionally the language becomes a trifle twee; the movie, I think, is better. In the process of whittling the story down, Magee’s screenplay makes it purer (the few additions, like Pi’s adolescent romance, feel organic rather than tacked on). And though the narrative is episodic in nature the movie doesn’t feel that way because the visuals give it a compulsive watchability – you get the sense you’re whipping through the pages of a great adventure storybook with illustrations so exquisite they make your eyes pop. Usually I find Ang Lee’s movies tediously literal-minded, but he can surprise you. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had a sense of boyish wonder I hadn’t suspected he was capable of, and though I found his gay cowboy picture Brokeback Mountain bafflingly repressed, the sex scenes in Lust, Caution were amazing; you couldn’t believe the same man made both films. But this is the first time Lee has seemed to me to be a real filmmaker, someone who can think simultaneously in visual and emotional terms. The Pondicherry scenes are lovely, especially one where Pi accompanies a kathak dance class on a tabla drum (this is where he meets Anandi, played by Shravanthi Sainath – the stunningly beautiful girl whom he has to leave behind when his family gets on the cargo ship) and a brief interlude on a rainy afternoon where the rain simultaneously mutes the colors and makes them glisten, the way Jacques Demy does in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. And the storm at sea, which draws Pi out of his cabin in the wee hours to marvel at the spectacle, laughing with delight as he slides across the deck, is certainly a beauty. It’s when he gets on the lifeboat, though, that the image-making becomes truly dazzling. A zebra crashes onto the boat, smashing one of its legs: the shot is simultaneously gorgeous and shocking. A hyena scuttles out from under the canvas, screeching and lunging madly; the zoo’s female orangutan, Orange Juice, with ancient, mournful eyes, floats over on a crate of bananas; and Pi, thinking he’s holding out an oar to help another human being into the boat, suddenly realizes he’s got hold of Richard Parker. The Darwinian interplay among these four animals is mostly terrifying (though never graphic), but it’s also stupefying – you can’t believe what you’re watching. (I think that’s literally true; the balance of live animal footage and CGI is like a running magician’s trick that you can’t for the life of you work out.) Eventually – naturally – the Bengal tiger is the only of the four left alive; like Pi, you root for Orange Juice against the hyena, but you know she doesn’t have a chance. Pi has to hang off a lifejacket attached to the mast – and then sail alone on a raft he’s constructed of oars and buoys – until he figures out how to teach Richard Parker to respect territorial boundaries between them the way an animal trainer in a circus might, using the fish he catches as a set of rewards.

Suraj Sharma, director Ang Lee and author Yann Martel
The first night at sea, Pi howls into the storm, weeping out an apology to his family for his inability to save them. (When the ship begins to sink, he tries to swim back through the waterlogged corridors to get to them but to no avail.) The first time this vegetarian boy catches a fish in his net, he clubs it to death and, weeping again, gets out a second apology, this time to the fish. Much later in the film, when hunger has emaciated both Pi and Richard Parker, who lies listless on the boat, not stirring even when the boy splashes his mouth with fresh water (the movie doesn’t explain, as the book does, the laborious system Pi rigs up, using a survival book he finds among the boat’s supplies, for purifying ocean water), we hear his third and final tearful apology, to the tiger for not having succeeded in keeping him alive. Then he lifts the animal’s head into his lap and strokes it. This is the most poignant moment on screen between an animal and a human being since Sigourney Weaver reached out to touch the gorilla’s face in Gorillas in the Mist.

It’s Pi’s belief that when he wakes up and finds the boat has run aground on an island overrun with seaweed and populated by thousands of meerkats, God has rescued him and Richard Parker at their moment of capitulation to death, and that when, revived by food and a swim in a tide pool, he makes the discovery that the island harbors a danger from which he and the tiger must flee, it’s a sign from God. (The meerkats, which look from a distance like stalks of grain swaying in the wind and, when Pi gets close enough, stretch themselves to their full height in what looks hilariously like astonishment, supply a marvelous, and much needed, tonal shift.) But the spiritual idea the movie sets out to explore is the link between the boy and the tiger – which stems from the boy’s insistence to his exasperated father that Richard Parker has a soul.  Lee continually shoots them as doubles of each other. In one remarkable sequence, Pi looks over at the tiger, staring into the ocean, and wonders what he’s thinking. He tries to get into his mind what the tiger might see: zoo animals swimming underwater, and glorious and frightening sea monsters.  Suddenly these images give way to Anandi’s face, made up of dots of light like a pointillist painting, and you realize with a start that Pi has bridged Richard Parker’s imagination with his own. At this point we may remember the scene in Pondicherry where Pi brings Anandi to the zoo to show her Richard Parker, resting, his body perfectly still except for his head, which probes the air gently like, it suddenly seems to Pi, a kathak dancer.

The movie makes one mistake, I’d say, and it’s imported from the novel. When the Japanese insurance investigators interview Pi in the Mexican hospital they don’t believe his fantastic story; they demand that he tell them another one that they can bring back to their employers, one that won’t make them look like fools. So he relates a story about winding up in a lifeboat after the shipwreck with his mother, a wounded sailor and the loathsome ship’s cook (whom we met earlier, in the person of Gerard Depardieu). Luckily the filmmakers don’t dramatize the story; the adult Pi simply repeats it to the writer. But this tale of how the impulse to survive brings out the worst in Pi, who finally behaves as evilly as the cook, undercuts the sorcery of what precedes it. I understand what Lee and Magee are up (and what Martel was up to): the discrepancy between Pi’s second story – which (as the writer, of course, immediately cottons onto) invents a base for which the interaction among the four animals in the boat at the outset of the voyage can be read as a metaphor – and his first is that Richard Parker brings out the best in Pi because God is there all along. But the movie doesn’t need the comparison between the stories to make that point. It’s clear throughout the movie, and the way in which Lee shifts the emotional meaning of the image of the tiger’s departure from the first time we see it (at the end of the first story) to the second (when it’s repeated at the very end of the movie), to convey a shift in Pi’s feelings about it, makes the point again in another way. In any case, we don’t have to debate over which version of the story we’re supposed to believe, or perhaps I should say believe in. Lee doesn’t show us the second story, after all. Besides, Life of Pi is a piece of movie magic, like The Black Stallion (or last year’s Hugo), and movie magic always makes us into believers.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes forThe Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


  1. This is a great review and really makes the reader want to go out and see the film immediately. One correction, though: Yann Martel isn't Indian-Canadian. He was born in Spain, to French-Canadian parents.

  2. Fiona - Thank you for your kind remarks as well as your keen eye. We've made the correction.

  3. What an incredible movie and spot on review. Thank you!

  4. Fantastic review: as I relive seeing the movie in your words while listening to Pi's Lullaby over and over...the entire package, was, as you say here, just one of the best things to have come along in well, perhaps ever (only slight exageration). Thanks for such a very real appraisal. One of the few movies I've ever wanted to rush out and see again (the immersion of Avatar was another).

  5. Very good review. I would to point out a few things:

    1. In the "Tigers Vision" scene, the image that forms from those dots is that of Pi's mother (not Anandi)

    2. The dance form is Bharatanatyam (not Kathak)