Can images invoking a sense of awe bring a man closer to God? If so, then Ang Lee’s Life of Pi could have rested easily as its titular character raged aloud to an unseen deity, watching as lightning struck the ocean, its light spreading through the water like veins. The visual splendor of the sequence overwhelms, and a man called Pi, played by Saraj Sharma, welcomes his destruction as a storm threatens to capsize the lifeboat carrying him. If only Lee could keep his character silent, the aesthetic beauty of his film might have carried more weight. Instead, the existential crises of a man trapped on a boat with a tiger named Richard Parker cannot escape the cold mechanics of a story bent on meaning something. Oh, no doubt, if a man was trapped on boat with a hungry tiger, while a storm tried its best to wash away with him, he might have some choice words for his creator. But Pi utters these words aloud, at the top of his lungs even, and his thoughts are too well formed for the emotion and chaos that fuels them. His exclamations hold a clarity meant for the audience alone, and so Ang Lee dumbs down a moment of spiritual transcendence for fear that it may not translate to all.
The greatest obstacle Life of Pi faces is that spiritual epiphanies cannot be a shared activity, but a movie must be shared. And so Life of Pi begins in a traditional way: a struggling novelist (Rafe Spall) seeks out the older Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) for a story that will make him believe in God. The older Pi cordially accepts the task, and begins to narrate a story of a young boy whose father runs a zoo, a boy named after a swimming pool in France rather than the irrational mathematical symbol his name would suggest. The young Pi (Gautam Belur) spends his childhood collecting religions the way others his age might collect baseball cards, and soon takes on the mantel of a Hinduist Catholic Muslim. He seeks out baptism, prays to Mecca, and reads the old stories of Hindu gods in awe, giving each task its due reverence. The older Pi then comments that faith is a house with many rooms, and that each room houses doubt, a force that stands to substantiate what you believe in.
The young Pi first experiences doubt when he encounters his father’s new Bengal tiger, Richard Parker. Pi tries to feed him raw meat by hand, and his father catches him before the tiger can take his arm off. Out of fear and misplaced paternal instinct, his father then proceeds to show him that tigers “do not have souls,” forcing Pi to watch the creature devour a goat chained to his cage. The narrator hastily informs the audience that this demonstration disenchants the young Pi, who struggles to find the same awe in spirituality he had found in his youth. The fact that Lee’s film rushes past Pi’s spiritual shift signals the awkward maneuverings of an adaptation, but for the most part the content of Yann Martel’s novel remains faithfully intact. The problem is that the film should not have remained so faithful, and perhaps might have begun with what comes next.
Pi’s father forces his family to leave for Canada, traveling across the ocean with zoo animals in tow on a massive Japanese freighter. During a dark and brooding storm, Pi sneaks away from his sleeping family to witness the power of the squall. However, as the boat surges in the ocean a siren sounds, red warning lights flash, and Pi learns too late that the freighter is sinking. He tries to save his family but he cannot, and the ship’s crew rush him onto a lifeboat. Pi falls from the boat and drifts beneath the ocean, watching as the ship sinks slowly down, lights still blazing through the murk. He returns to the boat, inhabited solely by zoo animals who have managed to find their way to the ship. The Bengal tiger from Pi’s childhood lurks at the back of the boat, making a quick meal of the rest of the animals, and Pi must find a way to coexist with the tiger as they drift aimlessly across the ocean.
The image of Pi submerged under the water, watching the ship glow and flicker in the distance, stands out as one of the most powerful images of the film. It says everything the filmmakers need it to say, and there is no want for the narrator to tell the audience that Pi is heartbroken, or Pi to say as much himself within the moment. During the remainder of the film, I was struck with similar feelings that Life of Pi need not explain so much away. If Lee had left the film predominately to its images alone then perhaps the singular experience of a spiritual awakening could be relayed with some poignancy to an audience. However, for every still moment of aching beauty, and for every tacit exchange between Pi and the Richard Parker, comes a scene that tries to explain significance. This constant need diminishes the film’s strongest sequences, and assures that any revelation held by the characters do not carry to the audience.
Even more unforgiving though, is an ending that forsakes the tenuous myth the film has worked so hard to build. It heedlessly questions the course of events from the shipwreck on, and does so with little time left in the film for rumination. Perhaps in the book this moment had enough behind it to seem justified, but in the film it feels akin to a “was it all a dream?” kind of finale. Still, if you ignore the film’s waning moments, and the overreaching narrative throughout, Life of Pi occasionally stands as a deeply felt visual experience. I would simply rather that Ang Lee and company had built the film up from these poetic still moments, rather than committing to a story with a beginning, a middle, and an unmoving end.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.