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.

37 Comments on this Post

  1. That was beautiful, Sasha.
    Truly.

  2. rufussondheim

    Something tells me that you would love the book Contact by Carl Sagan. Yes, it was made into that Jodie Foster that many disliked. But what those of us that read the book know, the best parts of the book were left out of the film.

    But it touches on the themes that you found so fascinating in The Life of Pi.

  3. unlikely hood

    Rufus makes a great point about Sagan’s book. Rufus, Sasha – have you also read Life of Pi? I love that book to death. Sounds like they really adapted it right. For me at least, the book reminds you that religion isn’t just a set of principles to take or leave, but a journey and a story that you are part of, that you can affect. But then, the book is more than that and it sounds like so is this picture.

    Pi is my birthday (March 14) so thanks for the extra paean.

  4. Wonderful review, Sasha. This is one of my favorite books and, from your review, it appears that Lee has somehow managed to capture the real heart of it.

    Ang Lee has an uncanny knack of finding the simple truth in the stories he films. I don’t know how he does it – and he’s not always successful – but when he succeeds the results are remarkable, not to mention diverse (Sense & Sensibility, Ice Storm, CTHD, Brokeback, and now Pi). And that truth is always found in the doing that leads to the final destination, not just the endpoint as a goal in itself.

    It sounds like he’s made a breakthough in using the technology available, too.

    Great article.

  5. Kevin Klawitter

    With the currend dominant Box Office trend of comic book movies, I’m surprised nobdoy has thought about revisiting Ang Lee’s “Hulk”, which I believe is a brilliant movie that was misunderstood and ahead of its time.

    Lee’s biggest crime, I guess, was taking his subject, easily the most ridiculed character of the mainstream Marvel oeurve, deadly seriously. Fans didn’t like that. They wanted a mindless, cheesy action movie (which they got, made quite well, in 2008) and recieved a serious and thoughtful Science Fiction picture that cared about developing its characters and really considered their motives and how being in a situation that would result in the creation of The Hulk would affect them. Combine this with the pitch-perfect casting and a fantastically ambitious visual style and you get a truly complex and original take on a comic book character… one that has more in common with “The Dark Knight” than it does Raimi’s “Spider-Man” series (which I also love).

    I stand firm in my belief that had “The Incredible Hulk” come out in 2003 and “Hulk” in 2008, the Ang Lee movie would be a fan favorite and the other dismissed as competent but disposable.

  6. “Ang Lee’s Life of Pi squares so many circles for Hollywood — bringing A-list artistry to the kind of cutting edge 3-D technology squired only by superhero franchises and cartoons, it thus also squares the business in which the industry happens to operate all-year round with the one day fit of artistic conscience known as the Oscars — that unless Spielberg has a real ace up his sleeve with Lincoln, anyone who says the race for Best Picture isn’t over has a vested interest in making the race seem more open than it is and/or an Oscar blog to keep flogging until February. Throw in the fact that the Academy owe Ang Lee for screwing over Brokeback Mountain, a pantheistic plea for religious tolerance, the mixture of stunning visuals and emotional heft, and it’s irresistable. Dusted, done — over.” – Tom Shone

    Between his review and yours Sasha, I’d think I’d very much like to see this movie.

  7. ProfoundBark

    Sasha, that was stunning. If the film moves me half as much as your words, I will consider myself a lucky man.

  8. Pierre de Plume

    Ryan’s previous post on this film got my attention — your essay, Sasha, sold me. If Ang Lee’s film moved you to write such a great, fluid piece, I’m very anxious to see it.

  9. your review truly moved and affected me quite a bit. Going through a VERY rough – at times suicidal – struggle with depression over the past few months, your ruminations on the nature of happiness itself have given me a lot of perspective and insight, not to mention quite a bit to think about. Thank you, Sasha, for your wonderful words.

  10. Thanks, Sasha for your lovely essay. I just saw Life of Pi at the NYFF tonight, on a much smaller screen than I would have liked. The film is visually spectacular yet at the same time intimate. You always feel close to Pi. All the actors playing Pi are wonderful. I can’t wait to see the movie again. I wonder if this will be Lee’s most popular film? It made me want to see all his movies all over again. Lee introduced the film tonight and he introduced the young man who played Pi. What a treat.

  11. Sasha, I’ve been reading you for years and I think this is your best review ever. You’re a film critic darling. love you xo

  12. ProfoundBark

    Sasha, had to come back to read your review again and show it to a friend only to read further comments about your very insightful words. To think you have moved others that might be in a dark spot in this so often challenging world, I can’t think of a greater compliment to you as a writer.

  13. Stéphane Laporte

    Never mind the movie (joke!!!), this review deserves an Academy Award for best original writing! Great job, Sasha!!

  14. What do you think Sasha, can Life of Pie be contebder for BP and BD or is is not on AMPAS’s taste?

  15. At the beginning of the year, I had very high hopes for three films: The Master, Life of Pi, and Cloud Atlas. In the past, if I’m lucky, one of my expectations hits the mark. Given the reception of the first two and the standing O for the third at TIFF, looks like there might be a triple this year. Add to that surprises like Beasts of the Southern Wild and we have some potential classics this season.

    If the Oscar race turns out to be between “that” biopic and “that” musical, fine with me. I wouldn’t expect anything different. It’s early and those two haven’t been seen, hopes are high and we love to be inspired, yadda yadda, but given the comparative challenge of the material, Hooper and Spielberg are going to have to pull some pretty fancy tricks out of their ass for their films to even be considered in the same league ten years from now.

  16. OK, I re-read my post and before I get pilloried for being negative, all I’m saying is originality and complex ideas trump the conventional in the long run. Nothing wrong with being conventional or rewarding it if it’s well done, which those two are likely to be.

  17. rufussondheim

    Steve you bring up a good point and with it I will get back to the Oscar race.

    Oscar has a tendency to reward the conventional. Some years, it’s true, they do embrace the something truly original and complex, but usually only do so when there isn’t a conventional option. Of course, the Academy prefers more than anything something conventional that is under the guise of being original (The Artist, Forrest Gump, Chicago)

    I’m no film expert and I don’t know definitively how to classify many of these films. But I think there are simply too many of these “complex, intelligent” films for them to embrace this year. I think they will end up with 3 to 4% of the votes and be left off the list.

    That’s why I think things like Les Miz and Silver Linings are likely shoo-ins for nominations. They are more conventional and will appeal to the more sentimental.

    Last year is a great lesson if anyone wants to learn from it.

    Of the three BIG complext intelligent films last year (clearly there were more) only The Tree of Life got the nom, while Drive and Melancholia were shown the door. Yet they found room for War Horse, The Help and even Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

    I am 100% confidant that Life of Pi will make the cut even if it’s too intelligent or complex for much of the academy. It’s too popular a book for me to think it doesn’t have broad appeal (heck, they are assigning it to high school students now.)

    But I don’t see Beasts, The Master, Cloud Atlas and whatever other films you want to throw in the mix getting nommed at this point. There just isn’t a large enough segment of the academy to embrace them.

  18. Sasha, you are truly one of my favorite writers. Your ruminations on film go beyond just a surface overview. You constantly dig deeper. As an aspiring writer, myself, you are an inspiration.

  19. Wow, what are we going to do, so many movies this year are winners…can’t wait for this I love Ang Lee.

  20. “I think there are simply too many of these “complex, intelligent” films for them to embrace this year.”

    I agree 100% – and that’s really a wonderful thing. When the year has wrapped, I’m confident that we’ll be saying there has been nothing like it since the late 60s/early 70s when there was a clear delineation between well done, award winning conventional movies and the imaginative execution of complex ideas in auteur films.

    It does sound like Pi will cross that line, and given what many feel is “owing” to Ang Lee, the mainsteam will have to do backflips to top it because their previous A-game efforts won’t be enough.

  21. Tero Heikkinen

    OK, this film came out stronger than I expected. But IF it’s gonna win BP it has to win it on its own merits (which it seems to possess) and not as a make-up Oscar for what happened 7 years ago. Gold Derby suggests that that may come into play here.

    The Hobbit is now officially out. No way will they nominate two fantasy pictures. This might affect The Dark Knight Rises, too. Many have written the latter off months ago, but I have not. At least yet.

    Anyway, giving BP to that gay film director… well, if Ernest Borgnine were alive, he’d be rolling over in his grave.

  22. Tero Heikkinen

    Also, it would be interesting if they gave a Best Actor nomination for Suraj Sharma.

    There could be three 10+ nominees: this, Lincoln and Les Misérables, but one of them will probably “fail” with 6-8 nominations.

  23. alan of montreal

    Cloud Atlas didn’t sit very well with the critics, so that may factor into its chances. As for Les Miz, I think the one aspect of it that cannot be overlooked is the fact that the singing is done live-to-film rather than dubbed, which I think is an ingenuity in itself. So even as a blockbuster, I wouldn’t necessarily paint it as entirely conventional. Whether it is actually good or not remains to be seen, of course. It looks like we have an awesomely competitive field, though: Argo, Les Miz, Pi, Lincoln, Beasts, Silver Linings, The Master (which I believe will undoubtedly get a nod and will be one of the faves). I think you can forget about The Dark Knight–it had too much baggage, and the field is too crowded. Promised Land is still coming up, as well, and who knows what film might surprise at the last minute (there’s always one). Sasha, do you think there may even be a push for Polley’s film?

  24. “entirely conventional”

    Meaning straight line narrative, emotional arc with a payoff where expected, little ambiguity and all questions answered. It’s not easy to make it fresh, but it’s the map most use, which creates the convention. In that sense, Les Miz will fit the bill despite the very brave idea to sing live.

    I’m starting to get the feeling that The Master may not make the final cut with oscar. Could be tough sledding for the majority of the membership, especially with the large number of alternatives for nominees.

  25. davidlocke

    Thanks Sasha for such a heartfelt expression of what Life of Pi meant to you. I admired the book when I read it, but as a confirmed agnostic it was annoying when I felt it criticized those of us who refuse to make a choice for or against god. I just don’t know. But that doesn’t prevent me from being in awe of the unknowable. Your description of Lee’s film, as you experienced it, makes me think I won’t have the same problem with the movie. Your reaction seems like one I wish I could have had to Martel’s novel, which I found exciting and imaginative but a bit pedantic.

    p.s. also nice to read your comments daveylow, hope you post a review in the forum

  26. alan of montreal

    I think if the Tree of Life can make it, then so can The Master–especially with Harvey behind it. (How many films is TWC juggling this year, anyway? they seem to be extremely blessed with cinematic riches this year.) And can I just say how glad I am that neither Jean-Pierre Jeunet nor M. Night Shyamalan got his hands on Pi?

    One thing I have to say about Les Miz as a stage musical–as much as I’m a “traditionalist” when it comes to musical (i.e., song and dance, jazzy musical comedies), the first time I saw Les Miz on stage in Toronto, I teared up at a couple of points–though the second time, mind you, not at all.

  27. @Sasha,

    Though very well written, what intrigues me in your review is the profound use or belief in luck. You said you are an atheist, still I can’t fathom how can you believe in luck. Most of the atheist I know would say that they don’t believe in luck, rather they believe in deeds. Luck and fate are the terms mostly used by people who believe that things not in their hands is actually governed by God’s will so actually I somehow find your strong belief in luck as contradictory.

    Secondly having grown up in India, and after listening to the author of this book, I am sure he wrote the book affected by the spiritualism and the co-existence of several religions in India. Hence the story of Pi has to be the manifestation of his own experience with the existence of God. Infact, I am not sure if you know that in India, or rather in the religion Hinduism, many animals are worshipped. And Tiger happens to be one among them because it’s considered the vehicle of one of the Godesses, Durga. I haven’t seen the film but I am sure the religious experience that the writer had in India inspired him to write Life of Pi

  28. Beautiful piece. I only caution saying other interpretations are “misinterpretations.” I believe there is no such thing. We interpret how we interpret and no need to discount the view of others while writing a brilliant one of your own. Your writing is far too strong and convincing to resort to that kind of thing. The best part about a great film is that is can mean so many different things to many different people. I guess as infinite as the old pi yer talking about here.

  29. rufussondheim

    Let me say up front that I am not rooting against The Master even though I didn’t particularly care for it nor do I think it deserves a spot. But I would love to see it get a spot simply because anytime a demanding, thought-provoking, uncoventional film gets nominated for Best Pic, well that’s a good thing. That’s a victory for the type of film I want to get nominated and eventually win.

    But with that said, I just don’t think it’s in the cards for The Master. Yes, there will be people who think it’s the best movie of the year. And, yes, there will be people who put it number one just for political reasons. But with that said, I just don’t think it will appeal to anyone outside of its niche audience.

    Objectively speaking I don’t think it’s as good as The Tree of Life nor do I think it will have as wide an appeal. I think people respected The Tree of Life’s ambition, an ambition The Master really doesn’t have (although I will say I believe it’s ambitious.) Plus, The Tree of Life was ambiguous in ways that are more acceptable to people because it dealt with matters of spirituality and faith. Now one could argue that The Master deals with spirituality and faith and, and that would be technically true. But it’s still not the same as The Tree of Life allowed people to search for answers, it confirmed a sense of spirituality in a very visceral emotional way. The Master was pretty much cerebral.

    To put it simply, I think The Master is aiming for a smaller niche of people than The Tree of Life did.

  30. Very nice review. The images of this film have intrigued me, but I couldn’t figure out what the “plot” was. You explained it beautifully, without giving away too much. Of all the talked about possible Oscar films, this one, and Argo have caught my interest enough to really want to see them.

  31. Wow, what a great review you have written Sasha. My anticipation is even more high now for the movie.

  32. First, Sasha never stop writing. Most of the time, when I read your stuff I feel that you can write what Many of us feel.

    Second, I don’t know what the hell you are talking about Gautam. I am also an atheist and me and many fellow atheist I know firmly believe in luck. You know why? Because we can’t contol luck. We don’t believe in a higher power or that everything is already written or destined for us. You didn’t chose where or to whom you where born. That is called luck. Atheist believe that if something random happens to you that you had no control over its not because of a higher power moving chess pieces representing your life. We call that chance. By the way you wrote your comment I would bet you have never talked to an atheist before in your life. I would suggest you do so do you can understand a little about why we think like we do.

  33. Ryan Adams

    TB, thanks for your point about the notion of luck being entirely consistent with atheism.

    In fact, Christians in particular abhor the concept of luck. If it’s God who bestows good fortune, the recipient isn’t lucky; he’s be blessed.

    That’s why conservative religions around the world disdain gambling and games of chance. Religious people have faith that God has a plan. That plan doesn’t depend on happy accidents.

  34. Tero Heikkinen

    That’s something I also noticed. To me – like Ryan said – it feels like believers don’t really believe in luck. That they believe it was not luck/chance, but the Great God’s almighty plan.

    I’m a proud atheist (or at least agnostic) and I think luck definitely exists. You don’t make your own luck, like Billy Zane said in Titanic.

  35. Ryan Adams

    I’ve always felt evolutionary advancement through genetic mutation is a form of luck.

    (I mean, ok, not Godzilla.)

  36. I think I’ll stand by Darwin and Einstein…it’s not “there is no God or spirituality to this world” or “the Bible is fact.” I believe the universe is run on a combination of science and spirituality, that the two are interconnected (there are entire books on the link between psychedlic drugs and other “dimensions”), which means Life of Pi is going to be right up my alley.

    I’ve noticed that people like to divide hot topics into two categories, and then according to them everybody has to fall on one side or the other (Democrat vs. Republican, Religious vs. Athiest). Even sophisticated, open-minded people like Sasha can’t help but choose a side (Athiest Democrat), when in reality the truth probably falls somewhere between the two opposing camps. The allure of having an easy, cut-and-dry choice between white and black is too attractive for the majority of human minds who often feel good being a part of a team.

  37. Goodvibe61

    Sasha: Great title to your review! Truly inspired.

    Tonight I went back to the theater to watch Life of Pi again before it’s gone from the cinemas. I didn’t want to see it on my TV yet if I had another chance to catch the movie’s visual wonders on a big screen.

    After tonight I’m very comfortable that it ended up as the film with the most Oscar wins. It knocked me for just as much of a loop this time as the first time I saw it. My respect for Ang Lee knows no bounds after watching this again. It’s a technical marvel, a powerfully emotional experience.

    A couple things: I’m fascinated thinking about this film now that the awards are finally done. Why is it that Life of Pi was considered an also ran shortly after it opened? During the build up of the season, once the critics groups started announcing, this film was considered to be good, but not good enough to be a serious contender by the media. It quickly got lost among all the talk of Lincoln, and later, Zero Dark Thirty, and ultimately Argo. And there was plenty written that Pi didn’t have the necessary elements to go all the way.

    And yet it eventually won more Oscars than any of those films. Go figure. Nobody knows anything. In the final weeks, the only mention of Lee’s film was as a possible Best Director upset, due to the enormous Lincoln/Spielberg backlash. Of course the cinematography and visual effects awards were a done deal.

    The other thing: Into the Mystic indeed. Comparing this beautiful dream of a film with Van’s ehereal work was just the first of several nice touches throughout your review. Good on you Sasha.

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