“Life of Pi,” Yann Martel’s fantastical folk parable about faith and spirituality makes the journey to the big screen more or less intact, a meditative Ang Lee survival-at-sea adventure with many of the same virtues and shortcomings of the novel.
It’s a inscrutable morality tale for much of its length that explains itself, rather too overtly (like the novel) in the end, as if the author figures we need help jumping from inscrutable to scrutable. But its pleasures are undeniable and its mysteries, rewarding to contemplate. And in Lee’s hands, a seemingly-unfilmable fairy tale comes to life.
The story is framed within the meeting of a frustrated novelist (Rafe Spall) who has been sent to meet a man (Irfan Khan). Their meeting has been given quite the build-up. The novelist has been told this man’s tale is “a story that would make me believe in God.”
But it’s an autobiography that is too magical, far-fetched and “literary” to be believed.
Take the character’s name, an Indian boy, raised in a zoo, named “Piscine” after a favorite relative’s love of swimming pools. The precocious child endures profane teasing about his name just long enough to invent his own nickname. He is “Pi,” like that magical mathematical constant, and his way of making sure that the name sticks is one of the film’s funnier indulgences.
Pi grows up in 1950s India, a brilliant, curious child whose curiosity ranges from religions — he dabbles in Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism — to the animals in his father’s menagerie.
“Animals have souls,” he insists to his father. “I have seen it in their eyes.”
Pi is a committed vegetarian who only reaches young adulthood through the intervention of his no-nonsense father, a man who preaches “Religion is darkness” and warns against expecting to have a meeting of the souls with the zoo’s resident Bengal tiger — Richard Parker. The tiger would surely eat him, no matter how kind he is to it.
That is put to the test when the family sells the zoo and the ship they and the animals are on sinks in the deepest corner of the South Pacific. Pi (Suraj Sharma) finds himself on the lone lifeboat, stranded with an injured zebra, a forlorn and mourning orangutan, a crazed hyena — and Richard Parker.
Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”) manages to make this odd ark convincing, thanks to a seamless blending of real animals and digitally-tamed ones. The boat is just long enough to hide most of its inhabitants long enough for each to make an entrance. And there is just enough gear — food, water, life jackets — for Pi to keep his distance from the two critters who will kill him when starvation sets in. Special effects render the barren, glassy sea into a dreamland of illuminated jellyfish, overly-playful whales, sharks that are scarier than the tiger and just enough easy-to-catch fish to keep the boy alive and to keep the peace with the tiger. And no matter how dire circumstances turn, Lee finds playful and mystical touches to animate a fairly static story.
Pi has a lot of piety to fall back on for this ordeal. He grieves at having to kill to stay alive, and refuses to do in the tiger, even when the opportunity arises. He turns his eyes skyward and prays, “God, I give myself to you, whatever comes.”
There is a tendency among those whose life experience is from outside India to confer a sort of mystic guru status on stories there, a cliche the novel embraces and that Lee is not above falling into. Lee must return, again and again, to the act of storytelling. Irrfan Khan (“A Mighty Heart,” “The Namesake” and seen in last summer’s “Amazing Spider-Man”) is an interesting actor, but these static storytelling scenes play like the last third of a sermon that’s gone on too long.
But the cryptic, spiritual nature of the story — the metaphorical treatment of faith — blesses “Pi” with at least a hint of the vision-quest gravitas that the character, the author and the filmmaker were going for. Lee, whose last film grasped at but never quite got the “moment” of Woodstock, was on much surer ground with this magical realism, this floating, seemingly unfilmable parable for a spiritually-adrift age.
MPAA Rating: PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Tabu, Gerard Depardieu
Credits: Directed by Ang Lee, scripted by David Magee, based on the Yann Martel novel. A Fox 2000 release.
Running time: 2:05