The unlikeliest of buddy movies: ‘Life of Pi’ puts a teenager and a tiger together at sea

December 22, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 22, 2014

Ang Lee’s 2012 feature film, Life of Pi, is a brilliantly realized adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2002 book, which features a bizarre premise. For the bulk of the picture, the eponymous Pi — rhymes with pie the dessert; is actually pi the mathematical constant — is stranded on a life raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger.

It’s to the credit of Lee, screenwriter David Magee and the entire crew that this fantastic scenario plays out convincingly. Plaudits are especially due Suraj Sharma, the first-time screen actor who portrays Pi throughout most of the movie and who, for perhaps two-thirds of the running time, is the only person on screen.

Pi’s companion bears the name Richard Parker thanks to a clerical error at the time of purchase in which the animal’s name was transposed with that of the hunter who captured him. He used to be on display at a zoo run by Pi Patel’s family in Pondicherry, India. When local authorities announce their desire to repossess the zoo’s land, the Patels decide to move to Canada; they arrange passage aboard a freighter so they can accompany their animals, most of which will be sold in North America.

Tiger and teenager come to be trapped together in a lifeboat after an immense storm sinks the freighter. This is shown in a spectacular and frightening sequence that, in terms of cinematic impact, may outdo even the meteorological monster shown in The Perfect Storm.

The unlikely companions are able to come to an unspoken accommodation thanks to a combination of the raft’s ample supplies, Patel’s industriousness and a great deal of good fortune. The raft is stocked not only with drinking water, food and a flare gun but also a survival manual. Patel, who rigs an auxiliary raft that gives him refuge from the tiger, pores over the handbook and follows its advice, creating a sea anchor that stabilizes the boat somewhat. Patel is also able to catch fish. There’s also a stunning sequence in which a school of flying fish passes the vessel; many unlucky members of the squadron fall prey to Richard Parker.

(The tiger was apparently inserted digitally in the bulk of its shots, which makes Sharma’s performance (and Lee’s direction) all the more impressive.)

Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda make the most of the ocean environment, showing us the water in many moods: calm, choppy, chaotic. In one breathtaking scene, the placid surface beautifully mirrors the sky. Later, the camera shows us bioluminescent creatures that mimic the stars and galaxies floating in the night sky above the raft. (It’s no wonder that Lee won the Academy Award for best director in 2012, nor that Miranda won the Oscar for best cinematographer; the movie was also honored for visual effects and for Mychael Danna’s score.)

Lee and Magee avoid the potential visual monotony of showing a teenager in a small boat for half an hour or longer at a time by framing the movie as a tale told by the adult Patel, a Canadian scholar played by Irrfan Khan, to a writer portrayed by Rafe Spall. (Spall’s character is never named; one imagines him to be a stand-in for Martel.)

In flashbacks that precede the main action — which itself is a flashback — Lee shows Pi at age 5 and, per the credits, at ages 11 and 12. In effect, the frame story with Khan and Spall provides context for a tale that otherwise might be hard to convey.

As we and the writer learn from the adult Patel, he has always been a spiritual seeker: Born to Hindu parents, including an atheistic father, he learns about and embraces first the Christian and then the Muslim faiths. (He also becomes expert enough in Jewish mysticism to teach a university course on Kabbalah.)

Young Patel survives his ordeal, of course; not only does he give thanks to at least one divinity along the way, he also encounters a mysterious uncharted island that we see is shaped like the Hindu god Vishnu. As the movie draws to a close, Patel challenges the writer — clearly serving as a proxy for the audience — to decide for himself what role God, or the gods, may have played in Patel’s salvation.

It’s a fascinating ploy, one that encourages the watcher both to acclaim divinity for the majesty of His/Her/Its/Their creation and to forgive humanity for the dark impulses to which we are so often prone. It would be interesting to know what proportion of the audience declines to view the story through a faith-based lens and instead adopts a more conventional explanation for the events that Life of Pi depicts. The movie weights the scale in favor of religion, but in my view, its tactics are not so heavy-handed that they interfere with a non-believer’s appreciation of the narrative.

Whatever reading one puts on Life of Pi, it’s an engrossing movie experience. Although the harrowing shipwreck makes it an inappropriate film for young children, but otherwise, it’s a feature that can entertain — and possibly enlighten — many a potential viewer.

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