Dec 26, 2012

Life Of Pi

I was very skeptical about Life Of Pi, which, with a combination of 3D, computer effects and the threat of syrupy spirituality, was as appealing to me as a date with the Holy Inquisition. Having not read the book by Yann Martel, I expected the worst. I hate spirituality. I don't have it and I don't like it when people rub it in, especially in entertainment.
Well, I'm happy to report that this lovely, thoughtful film by the ever elegant Ang Lee is very beautiful and enjoyable. Life Of Pi turns out to be a parable of the myths and stories we need to imagine in order to endure the human condition, the cruelty of nature, the vagaries of fate. At the beginning, I was confused by the opening credits. I couldn't tell what was shot in real life and what was computer animation. If this is disorienting at first, soon it settles into a spectacular mix of both. The film is so gorgeous, so luminous, that before Pi endures his shipwreck, it feels like the most pleasant, gentle meditation, a gift for the eyes. Lee sustains an unhurried, yet never boring, pace as the older Pi (the always welcome Irrfan Khan), tells his unbelievable story as a flashback to a young writer (Rafe Spall, soulful). Pi is a gifted, curious child, an outsider with an eccentric name other kids make fun of. In Pondicherry, where he grows up the son of a zookeeper, he is in familiar terms with the wondrous stories of the millions of Hindu gods, but he also likes Jesus and he also likes Islam. The young Pi instinctively understands all these religions as different versions of one God he believes in. His father, a rational man, cautions him against the darkness of religion. He tells him he doesn't mind Pi believing, but he needs to use reason to arrive there. So far, so good.
Soon the poor Pi, now a young man, is stuck in a lifeboat with Richard Parker, a fearsome and beautiful Bengal tiger. God is nowhere to be found and nature takes over. Pi is a vegetarian and a protector of animals. But from a former encounter with the tiger when he was a child, he knows that Richard Parker will tear him to pieces, so he is stuck trying to manage the beast as they float on the vast ocean, all alone. I braced for new age pieties and corny clichés, or for Disneyfied animals who suddenly decide to become "man's best friends" and crack jokes; thankfully, they never showed up. They are animals and they behave as such. Pi (Suraj Sharma, a great sport) is intelligent and resourceful and learns how to survive inclement nature. Nature is shown to be as beautiful and generous as it can be ruthless, and as magnificent as the images of the different moods of the ocean are, nature's behavior is never a sanitized fantasy. The scenes of a cargo ship capsizing in a violent storm are very powerful. In general it is pretty astounding how Lee manages to never stray from an intellectually honest journey, with a credible hero, in the most fantastic of circumstances. He never gives in to sappiness, or to out of control special effects. The sensibility of this film is not what is usually found in American 3D blockbusters. That is to say, this is a movie about complex themes, where people, animals and nature all behave credibly. It does not condescend to the audience. The 3D is used elegantly and in harmony with the story, there are no cheap thrills. Chapeau to Ang Lee for never succumbing to the easy and obvious: it is an amazing directorial feat.  He combines a subtle, sensitive touch with the certain control of a dictator. Only a dictator could whip the complexities of shooting with such technology for what is essentially a delicate story, into a coherent, meaningful, artful shape.
There is a wonderful philosophical twist at the end that will leave atheists and believers equally happy. Agnostics will interpret this parable as saying that God and religion are yet another necessary human story. Those who believe will see the hand of God in Pi's deliverance.

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