Driving home from seeing Ang Lees’s mostly wonderful adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-selling Life of Pi, I remembered most a line that I’m sure will be used as a personal mantra for all of us suffering the slings and arrows that life throws our way: “If you don’t know fear, how can you know courage?”
I was not a great admirer of Martel’s novel but screenwriter David Magee has succeeded in elevating the story on the page into a kind of visual tone-poem that transcends genre and age. I saw it in 3-D but I’ll go very much against the grain and state there is nothing here to warrant the extra bucks at the box-office.
Ang Lee is a master of the epic palette and Pi does not disappoint here. As viewers of Brokeback Mountain will recall, the director’s innate romanticism, even in his more violent films, always beckons the eye to see the world as a landscape of wonders and challenges, in which man most constantly prove his strength to overcome the obstacles to survival.
If Brokeback awed us with endless vistas of rugged Wyoming country, here Lee literally plunges us into the Pacific Ocean (albeit in a not too convincing sound-stage tank) where our hero Pi Patel (an excellent Ayush Tardon as the adolescent Pi) survives a shipwreck only to find himself in a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger (named Richard Parker, to boot) as his sole companion. The allegorical metaphors fly at us fast and furious and for the most part, the film captures us and takes us along for a thrilling adventure.
We are told this tale through flashback when an almost middle-aged Pi, movingly portrayed by Irrfan Khan, relates his story to a budding Canadian novelist (Rafe Spall). Thus, we know from the outset that Pi survived his ordeal, but the meat and potatoes of Pi is the inner adventure that sees the character from the wide-eyed innocence of youth through the sobering wisdom that can only come through living one’s life to the fullest.
The film, likes the novel, at times threatens to sink under the weight of the moral and ethical issues it raises. “This story will make you believe in God,” the older Pi tells the writer and Pi seems to embrace not just one, but three or more deities in his quest for the truth and as he says, something to give meaning and purpose to his life.
It is without the least bit of irony or sarcasm, but with the purest imaginable devotion, when the young Pi says in a prayer, “Thank you, Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ.” As in all art, Pi is testament again that it is the specific that speaks to the widest audience. His ordeal at sea finally at an end, Pi and Parker land on a truly magical island populated by thousands of meerkats. It is here, the photography becomes almost overwhelmingly seductive, and Pi’s parting with his at first unwelcome ship-mate is achingly poignant.
At the end, the rescued Pi tells his story to an unbelieving pair of Japanese insurance men investigating the ship’s sinking. We are left with a tantalizing conundrum of what is real and what is dreamed, and ultimately, what would we choose, given the option. Magical!
Jeff Klayman is an award-winning playwright whose works have been produced in New York, Los Angeles and London. He also wrote the screenplay for the independent film Adios, Ernesto, directed by Mervyn Willis.