‘Pi’ dreamlike spectacle
Updated: December 23, 2012 6:23AM
‘Life of Pi’
Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning international best-seller was considered by many to be unfilmable.
However, it has been brought to the screen with breathtaking beauty thanks to recent advances in digital special effects. Yet all of that cutting edge technology tells a very intimate, very human story of survival and spiritual awakening.
Dramas don’t come with much more intimate settings than a lifeboat adrift on the limitless ocean, especially when the inhabitants of the boat are a teenage boy and a hungry Bengal tiger.
On one level, “Life of Pi” is a fairly standard tale of struggling to survive after a shipwreck. It’s larger purpose, though, is to allegorically tell “a story that could make you believe in God,” celebrating the wonders of life with almost non-stop, grand-scale visual splendor, and its most severe challenges in the face of the always threatening presence of the tiger.
Whether the allegory works for you or not is a personal matter. One thing is certain though: “Life of Pi” is a must see for anyone who appreciates filmmaking at its most sumptuous.
Dreamlike visual moments such as the small boat drifting on a glassy sea reflecting the sky and clouds eternally in all directions, and a swarm of flying fish raining into the boat to provide much-needed food, and an enormous school of phosphorescent jellyfish illuminating a still night as a prelude to the appearance of a giant whale might not make you believe in God.
Yet they are surely proof that director Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”) hasn’t lost the gift for spectacle he first demonstrated in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” He even incorporates 3D to subtle, artful effect, making “Life of Pi” an especially good bet for an IMAX experience.
Pi is short for Piscine Molitor, a man named for a swimming pool in France, who we first meet as a university professor living in Canada. As a slightly awkward storytelling device, screenwriter David Magee (“Finding Neverland”) has the professor (Irrfan Khan of “Slumdog Millionaire,” striking just the right note of quiet spiritual gravity) telling his life story to a writer seeking inspiration for a novel.
With occasional breaks to touch base with the adult narrator, we see 12-year-old Piscine growing up in a zoo owned by his parents in Pondicherry, India, using his mathematic gifts to shorten his name and side-step teasing by other kids at school, and cultivating equal devotion to Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.
A few years later, when hard times come to Pondicherry, we see teenage Pi (an impressive debut by Suraj Sharma) boarding the doomed steamer that’s meant to take him and his family and the unsold animals from their zoo to a new life in Canada. Then the fateful storm strikes — followed by the most harrowing shipwreck sequence since “Titanic,” including a haunting shot of the boy under water watching the ship as it descends into the depths with all its lights still glowing — leaving him as the sole human survivor.
Pi is not alone on the lifeboat, however. For company, he has a wounded zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and the tiger, named Richard Parker as a result of a clerical error, who has always fascinated and terrified him. Soon though, the dictates of the food chain mean that he is alone with the tiger (an entirely convincing marvel of computer-generated imagery) at the beginning of a 227-day ordeal, first surrendering the boat to him while sitting on a hastily constructed raft, then determining to tame him, then, gradually, developing a deep attachment to him. “My fear of him keeps me alert,” Pi writes in a journal, “tending his needs gives me purpose.”
In fact, the tiger, which the older Pi describes as “my terrible companion who kept me alive,” turns out to be less a curse than a blessing in the story’s philosophical scheme of things.
Even so, given a choice, I think most of us would have been much happier with the orangutan.