The 2012 film Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee, is an adaptation of the supposedly "unfilmable" novel of the same name, written by Yann Martel in 2001. The move takes the form of a story within a story, with the protagonist, Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, telling the incredible story of his life to an unnamed Canadian author, whom we assume to be Yann Martel.
Pi begins his story by reminiscing about his childhood in Pondicherry, a French enclave in India that wasn't ceded until 1954. His francophile father named him Piscine Molitor after his favourite swimming pool in France, the Piscine Molitor in Paris. Piscine subsequently shortened his name to Pi when he began secondary school because he had had enough of being teased with the nickname Pissing Patel. His father, a business man, owns a zoo, providing Pi with a relatively affluent lifestyle and with a basic understanding of animals and their psychology. Pi becomes fascinated by the animals in the zoo, especially by a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (a name very much ingrained in shipwreck sagas).
Though Pi was brought up under the Hindu faith, at the age of 12 he is introduced first to Christianity and then to Islam and begins following all three faiths simultaneously, trying to find a way to love god that appeals to him. His father, a rationalist, encourages him to think critically and to decide to follow a single religion, whilst his mother encourages his spiritual exploration. Pi's spirituality is an important part of the narrative; the Canadian author has been told that his story of survival will make him believe in God. Thankfully the movie manages to avoid much of the tedium of this introduction to religion by keeping the account of this part of Pi's life succint as well as by opting to gradually and subtely develop this important theme throughout the story.
When Pi is 16 years old his father decides to move the family to Canada, specifically Winnepeg, Manitoba, where he will sell the zoo animals. The family and animals get passenge on a Japanese freighter, the Tsimtsum (interestingly Tzimtzum is also a Hebrew word meaning contraction/withdrawal). One night, when the ship is sailing above the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the Earth's oceans, there is a huge storm and Pi goes on deck to watch. He sees the midsection of the ship being engulfed by immense waves, washing a crewman into the ocean; the Tsimtsum is floundering. Pi attempts to go back into the depths of the ship to find his family but is unable to by himself and comes back up on deck, where a crewman throws him into a lifeboat, despite his protestations. As the crew try to lower the lifeboat a freed Grant's zebra suddenly jumps from the deck of the ship and lands in it next to Pi, causing the boat to fall into the sea. Pi watches as the freighter sinks along with his family, one of the most hauntingly beautiful scenes in the movie. Though the departure from reality (ship lights on underwater) at this point in the movie is far less subtle than the surreal elements later on, it is not so glaring as to distract the audience from the beauty of the ship's death.
When the storm finally comes to an end, Pi alone in the lifeboat with the zebra, which broke its leg in the fall. He is joined by an orangutan, that floats over on a net of bananas. Soon after a spotted hyena emerges from beneath the tarp which covers half of the lifeboat, scaring him onto the top of the tarp before killing the zebra and subsequently the orangutan. Richard Parker, the tiger, then suddenly pounces from underneath the tarp, killing the hyena in turn. Pi is practically forced into the ocean by the tiger; he must construct a raft for himself out of lifeboat material so as to have a space to live, tethered alongside Richard Parker's boat. The rest of the movie focuses on the survival of this pair through a number of awe-inspiring trials. Since Pi recognises that the tiger could swim out to him if it got too hungry, he keeps Richard Parker alive by feeding him fish that he catches, and even goes out of his way to keep his companion alive when, at one point in the movie, he could easily have let the beast die. The development of the relationship between man and beast is quite possibly the most interesting aspect of the movie. Richard Parker, initially aggressive, slowly learns to live with Pi and, at their closest moment, rests his head on the latter's lap.
Eventually the pair drift to the Mexican coastline and their 227 day ordeal comes to an end. Richard Parker promptly leaves, going off into the forest without looking back at Pi, who is soon found by some locals and is brought to a hospital. There two insurance agents for the Japanese freighter interview him and, in one the movie's most powerful moments, he reveals the true meaning of the ordeal the audience watched. His discussion of the lessons his ordeal taught him is laid on slightly heavily at this point but does not detract significantly from the intensity of the reveal. The final truly poignant scene shows Richard Parker disappearing into the jungle without stopping to look back.
Though Life of Pi attempts to tackle bigger issues such as spirituality, belief and the interdependancy of life, its stunning visuals overwhelm much of any deeper meaning. This is not to say that the narrative is not fresh and laced with innovative elements or that the journey's test of Pi's physique, mental adaptability, and faith is not convincing; the beauty of the visuals is simply what the audience focuses on and remembers. The state of the art digital manipulation creates utterly real beasts as well as an lustrously detailed world that at times ventures into the surreal. It is no understatement to declare that the movie does for water and the ocean what Lawrence of Arabia did for sand and the desert. Finally, Life of Pi is a visually stunning film with a moving narrative that appeals to all well and is well worth watching, particularly in 3-D on the big screen.
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