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AD reader spotlight: Life of Pi

Marshall Flores writes: Irrational, circular, and transcendent – these three adjectives can describe many things: the conundrums of the universe, the mathematical properties of numbers such as pi. They also apply to the following short story, which I will use as a preface and frame for this review.

I know two people who had a long distance friendship. It was probably wholly inappropriate, but sometimes you find yourself drawn to someone even if you end up subverting many social norms that pertain to relationships. In any case, it was a close friendship that eventually couldn’t hold. Conflicts turned into total disconnect – ultimately, the friendship silently disintegrated. After one and a half years, one attempted to reconcile with the other. The catalyst: Life of Pi.

A film adaption of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel by Yann Martel, Life of Pi offers an introspective take on the mysterious, beautiful nature of life. A marvel of storytelling and visual resplendence, it tells the tale of Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, a young, religious teenager who, after a tragic shipwreck, is suddenly thrust into a harrowing journey on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – a journey replete with spiritual motifs as well as extraordinary (and often dangerous) encounters with nature. Life of Pi is not only a parable for survival and the resilience of the human spirit; it is also a meditation on the mercurial, madcap, but ultimately glorious disposition of life in this universe. It is one of the very best films of 2012.

I was introduced to Life of Pi back in 2003, when it was assigned reading for my AP English class. I was immediately enthralled with the novel, but it was undoubtedly a dense read. Pi was a novel with that could not possibly be fully understood with one reading; comprehension would only arise from repeat readings as well as age. Although I was never in the camp of Life of Pi devotees who insisted that a film adaptation was impossible, I was certainly of the opinion that it would take a unique talent for Pi to flourish on celluloid.

In retrospect, only a filmmaker endowed with a nearly unrivaled grasp of the human condition as Ang Lee could have brought Life of Pi to such exquisite life on screen. Ang Lee is, without a doubt, one of the greatest working directors today. Though Lee doesn’t have a readily identifiable “style,” there is a signature DNA (balance, sensitivity, and subtlety) that courses through all of his films, which is augmented by Lee’s incredible talent at visual composition. From the insular social structures of 18th century British society displayed in Sense and Sensibility to the breathtaking, open expanses of 1960’s Wyoming depicted in Brokeback Mountain, Lee has repeatedly demonstrated the ability and commitment to crafting characters strongly embedded in reality – flesh-and-blood creations that the audience can easily inhabit and identify with, regardless of time or place. This enables Lee to convey deeply profound and universal stories that effortlessly transcend boundaries imposed by setting or from moral, spiritual, and sociopolitical conventions.

With Life of Pi, Lee, in conjunction with screenwriter David McGee, has captured all the essential fibers of Martel’s tale in an efficient adaptation that makes great use of timely monologues and voice-over narration. Both actors who portray Pi (Suraj Sharma as young Pi and Irrfan Khan as adult Pi) contribute remarkable, moving performances. Sharma, in particular, is terrific – he manifests Pi’s transformation from naïve, slightly awkward Indian schoolboy to determined, resourceful survivor both physically and emotionally, with equal aplomb. His attempts to tame and co-exist with fellow survivor Richard Parker (an adult Bengal tiger that is a very impressive CGI beast) are among the very best scenes in the film.

Lee, along with Director of Photography Claudio Miranda (whose previous efforts include The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Tron: Legacy), elected to use a lush, pastel-like palette, enhanced with judicious use of CGI and 3-D, to bring Life of Pi to the big screen. True to form, Lee uses 3-D only to enrich the viewer’s sense of places and circumstances, never as a gimmick for artificial gags. The result is nothing short of spectacular: a vibrant rendering of a world where surreal is a bit of understatement. Every wave, every ripple, every whisker is so convincingly depicted that one cannot resist reaching out to touch them. One scene in particular where Pi is standing alone on a homemade raft was committed to memory; the camera, high above and angled down, captures a perfect reflection of the sky in the transparent, mirror-like surface of the Pacific. In this shot, there is no boundary, no distinction between Pi, his raft, the lifeboat, the sky, and the ocean – all are instead melded together on a single tableau of sheer beauty. But as dazzling as the visuals are, Lee makes sure that they remain subordinate to the story unfolding on screen.

Although Life of Pi isn’t really about the number pi at all, in many respects, pi is a very instructive analogy for its themes. Pi is a symbolic representation of a ratio that relates a circular quantity to a linear one, a constant that is essential for so many mathematical and scientific formulas. However, pi is a quantity that can only be approximated; its digits are without pattern, its transcendent properties make it impervious to simplification. There are various algorithms that can estimate pi; one test of a computer’s power is how many more decimals it can spit out while computing pi when compared to the previous generation of computer. But ultimately, no matter how sophisticated technology or mathematics becomes, pi inevitably ambles on without end. Mathematicians and scientists will never fully comprehend pi – like a surprising number of other math and science concepts, pi is to some extent an “article of faith” that is widely used without being totally understood.

Like pi and as demonstrated in Life of Pi, the nature of life is circular and irrational; we endlessly cycle through highs and lows, hope and despair, love and loss, as we journey from birth to death – the circular related to the linear. Many events occur on micro and macro levels without regards to rhyme or reason. Nonetheless, we still endeavor to understand life, to understand the nature of everything around us. Our primary tools of approximation (or, as used in Life of Pi, storytelling) are religion and science; both can explore and replicate aspects of the human experience well, but are often portrayed as mutually exclusive. As a Catholic who attended a Jesuit high school, my broad-based education enabled me to have no conflict between the two – there only exists a complimentary unity. Life of Pi also emphasizes this point by displaying a vibrant coexistence between Pi and Richard Parker, a balance between man and beast, the natural order and a supernatural order.

But in the end, life is still way too mystifying, way too transcendent for our feeble minds to grasp. The best thing we can do as humans is to take the time to appreciate the nonsense of life, marvel in its many wonders. Inevitably, we will be shuffled off of this mortal coil, and life will continue its unceasing cycles for future generations, traveling on a path to further unknowns long after we expire.

As for the estranged friends in my preface; well, as Pi tells Yann Martel in both film and novel, “This story has a happy ending.” The Life of Pi-induced reconciliation was successful, and both are now closer than ever. I chalk it up as yet another totally irrational, absurd miracle of life. “And so it goes with God.”


AD reader steve50 writes: I finally caught Life of Pi and I have to say, Lee’s film shimmers with the hyperrealism intensity of selective memory, like the reflective surfaces in Richard Estes paintings. Gorgeous and moving, he did justice to the book and made an outstanding film.

Now, to the “god” thing and the brief retelling of the story in the last act that seems to have caused some wincing.

(I don’t believe in SPOILER ALERTS when the original material was published 5 years ago, or more, but if you do, consider one here)

On a quick, personal note, having studied, even dabbled in, several belief systems in my life, I’m entirely empathetic to Pi’s spiritual hoarding, the scene that got the biggest smile from me was when the Buddhist sailor (literally and figuratively) showed up at the table last, just before Pi’s world changed in that horrendous storm.

In the story, poor pantheistic Pi is told by his father, “If you believe in everything, you will end up not believing in anything at all.” About the film, NYT critic AO Scott said in his review, “the movie invites you to believe in all kinds of marvelous things, but it also may cause you to doubt what you see with your own eyes.”

Parallel statements, equally true, but used with a critical connotation when, in fact, they are positives – doubting is the very positive result of exposure and learning. Doubt is key to survival, much more so than doctrine, in that it causes us to make intelligent decisions based on nature, not dogma. In any standard religious belief, there is no room for doubt, which makes “god” a soothing panacea in a crisis, but doesn’t resolve the matter at hand. Nature will definitely resolve it, and this occurs over and over in the film, where hell has all the trappings of a paradise. It’s a place where the glorious breach of a whale in a night sea teeming with phosphoric algae becomes a destructive force, while the presence of a hungry and nervous Bengal tiger in the boat becomes the sole reason to stay alive.

Which brings us to Richard Parker, and conflict between the “real” story (nature) and the “acceptable” story (doctrine).

First clue: Yann Martel, the author of the book, chose the name “Richard Parker” because of the number of occurrences of people by that name who were shipwrecked, two of them (one real and one fiction) cannibalized by other survivors. So “Richard Parker” has a history of “becoming one”, as it were, with other castaways.

Second clue: Trauma, hunger, thirst and solitude all impact our memory and perception of reality. That’s nature, dogma long flushed away.

Third (and most important): Truth is always stranger than fiction because fiction can only be framed by the limits of our own beliefs while truth happens in the most chaotic and circumstantial ways.

While the secondary version (at the end of the film) of the events is the more outwardly plausible and acceptable to society’s limited understanding of the way things are supposed to happen, it’s the first story that Pi has taken for himself. It’s his story of how he survived and how he continues to reconcile events in his own memory. It’s what happened to him.

I love Richard Parker. I love the idea of him and the manifestation of him in Life of Pi. “Richard Parker” has saved my ass and helped me keep my wits on many occasions, and tending to his needs is what keeps me going. He’s unsentimental and always retreats to the jungle when he’s not needed. Is he “god?” No. Using that word means subscribing to the confines of something without scope, imagination or doubt, and Richard Parker is unrestricted by such things. But can he make you believe in god, as Pi says to the writer? He might, if you can drop the trappings of religion and use doubt to help you understand what you really see.

Life of Pi moves to number one on my list this year.