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Life of Pi: Into the Mystic

“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.” – Albert Einstein

The glorious, profound absurdity of it all parades before our eyes in spectacular 3-D in Ang Lee’s adaptation of Life of Pi. Based on the Man Booker Prize-winning novel by Yann Martel, this film takes you where you need to go, then yanks you back playfully, and finally delivers onto a choice. Just as there are two distinct ways of looking at the celebrated, mysterious number pi, most of us come at our lives battling the duality of science vs. religion. For those who aren’t spiritual or religious, the notion of equating the two is ridiculous. Because humans see beauty and magic in all things does not mean that it was planned by a higher being. And yet, even the least religious among us will cry out in moments of horror or ecstasy, “oh god!” We do this because we have no other word.

Life of Pi follows the story of an Indian boy who calls himself Pi. He spends much of his young life yearning towards religion. He follows the teachings of three — Christianity, Hinduism and Islam — and all the while observes the animals in the zoo his family owns and maintains. Early on, he learns an important lesson about the Royal Bengal tiger, that to the tiger he is nothing but food. He may put his hand in the cage in a gesture of trust, but that doesn’t mean the tiger will recognize the offer as friendship. The existence of God perhaps helped explain nature’s wonders before science provided other answers. But as mankind discovered earthly explanations, our hyper-aware sensibilities put us at odds with the godly. For some, the quest for answers has set us eternally out of balance with the stark truth of the natural world.

Pi and his family and all of their zoo animals ship out, Noah’s Ark style, on a journey to a new home in Canada . The plan is to sell off the animals to raise enough money to start a new life, but at sea their ship is hit by a brutal storm. Pi is cast out into the darkness and barely survives, holding on to a small boat. When the storm clears, Pi finds himself alive and adrift with an orangutan, a hyena, a zebra. If you haven’t read the book I won’t tell you what happens next except to say that eventually Pi and a tiger he names Richard Parker are thrust together in a story of survival.

Less specific to time and place than Hugo, not as predictable as Avatar, Life of Pi employs a similar hyper-real rendering of the universal human experience. And yet what CGI and 3-D afford here are opportunities to go beyond replication of a recreated world and dive directly into the writer’s imagination. Since most of the story takes place on a boat with a young man fighting for his survival, you might wonder why anyone would spend that much time making an epic if it was only going to be about that. Well, to begin with, Life of Pi is far more than what some of the early talk described it: kid finds God on a boat. The truth is that the kid had already found God. That’s not what he searches for or what he struggles with. It’s not how he ultimately triumphs. When man and beast bond on an island paradise, it isn’t God’s doing at all, and that is the miracle of Life of Pi — this is a celebration of the dance between the natural order and the godly order and how those two concepts coexist.

Scientists and religious leaders have been in conflict for centuries — for most, it has always been an either/or scenario even as scholars like Charles Darwin and Einstein and more recently Stephen Jay Gould have said, essentially, there is a perfect unity, not conflict. Belief in God and belief in science are two different things that can be intertwined in our daily lives provided we don’t feel the need to replace one with the other. Separate but equal ways to interpret the human experience. As an atheist, I never saw God in this film. What I saw was the vibrant balance of the natural world — and, like the number pi, there is no concrete, rational explanation for what I felt. It simply is, and that is all.

It is clear that only a human being and artist as evolved as Ang Lee, a true cinematic treasure, could have rendered this film so beautifully. Lee’s films are always about balance, subtlety, yin and yang. Here, he’s never in a rush to tell more than this simple story — and yet he clearly wanted to indulge in spectacle. But in the end, what makes Life of Pi so powerful isn’t the special effects but the way he wraps up the story; the final third, when everything comes together in ways both unexpected and inevitable, is a killer. Still, the visual effects won’t likely be topped by any other film this year. Every feather, whisker, watery ripple is so well-defined you want to reach out and touch them. It made me think of the way my daughter would wave her hand in the air in 3-D movies to try and catch the illusion. It didn’t embarrass her to be fooled. She believed fully in the possibility, the ephemeral delight.

Buddhists teach that life is suffering. If you start there, you have a chance at living a happy life because anything is better than suffering. Millions are born into inexplicable suffering and can find no escape. Even for the luckiest among us, happiness is a choice, not a right. There are women who have worked their entire lives scrubbing floors in India so that they can’t even stand straight when they walk. I know that there are starving children who die every day all over the world. To ruminate on life’s meaning is in itself a luxury.

But the same way we use the number pi to work our mathematical miracles, in the end, that’s how we can view our experience here on Earth. An infinite, magic number used to solve mathematical equations finds mortal parallel in our infinite, mystical presence to achieve physical balance. The balance of what we know with what we don’t know. There is a reason Pi travels around the world like he does — the world is a circle. The universe is infinite. Gravity keeps us grounded. Some will misinterpret this film to mean that there can be harmony between the world’s religions. I don’t think that’s it. I think part of the problem with the world’s religions is that they claim to have answers to unanswerable questions. But in the end, there is really no point in trying to know for sure. No amount of spiritual certainty can change the chaos we see around us every day. But that’s alright. We must learn to accept the mysteriously durable turmoil. The value of pi is 3.14159265 ad infinitum. But it’s enough to hold a short strand of its magic in our heads, a small piece of the key in our hands. To serve our rough purpose we can stop counting without seeing the unknowable end of the chain. It goes on forever and so will everything else, with or without us. Like life, pi mystifies by revealing its purity in a patternless sequence. Somehow the glorious absurdity works. We’re lucky to have the wisdom to acknowledge its transcendence and the innocence to marvel at its wonder.