This movie could also be titled "Life of Lies." Much like Titantic
(1997), this film involves a ship that sinks and it also involves two
actors who play the same character at two different ages. Irrfan Khan (Slumdog Millionaire and The Namesake)
plays Piscine Patel, a middle-aged man from India who now lives in
Montreal, Canada. New actor Suraj Sharma plays Piscine Patel, nicknamed
Pi, but as a teenage boy still growing up with his parents and older
brother in India. Pi is the sole survivor of a cargo ship that sinks
into the Pacific Ocean. Pi survived for 227 days or about seven months
on a lifeboat. Both Khan and Sharma, as their characters, tell the story
to someone about what happened and how Pi survived. Both stories are
incredible. One is slightly more so, but the question becomes which
story do you believe or are both stories just works of fiction.
Based on the novel of the same name by Canadian author Yann Martel who won the Man Booker Prize for this work, director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain) almost dares the audience to decide at the end if what they saw was real in the mind of Pi or was it just fabrication. But, with any story or testimonial, that's the basic, eternal question. What separates Ang Lee's film is that it's not enough to decide the veracity, the listener to the story has to determine which he prefers. Despite the horrible things that happen in each story, there is one version that makes the listener feel better about the world, and this goes to the heart of what religion is and why it might be important. Religion is a choice of what story you want to believe about the world that makes you feel better, particularly when you have nothing or are stripped of everything.
Other than that, Ang Lee's film explores the idea of religion and man's faith in God in the typical fashion by pitting man against nature and/or the elements. It's an exploration that's easy to do or it's an argument that's easy to square because obviously the ending is known in advance. It would have been one thing if after Pi's adventure, he became an atheist, but the obvious conclusion that Pi's survival of his ordeal ensures his belief in God.
There is a minor argument to be had about whether or not Pi believes that animals have souls and can relate to humans, but I'll get back to that in a moment. First up is Pi's faith. The film starts out strong because unlike most children in most countries, Pi is exposed to multiple religions. He's not just exposed. He learns the traditions of various ones and then proceeds to practice them. Pi learns Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam.
Pi's father points out that this is not normal. Most children follow one religion and that's it. Pi embraces three, which opens up the speculation that following all three religions means he doesn't really believe in any of them. Pi himself even says that you can't know your faith until you're tested. It perhaps would have been more interesting if when Pi is eventually tested, his test involved those three religions in a way that challenged Pi's following of the three. Pi's father pushes his son to use more logic and reason, as Pi has already been proven a wiz at math, and, in the end, it is logic and reason that saves Pi or it is such that allows him to endure. Pi states that it was God guiding him, but it would have been more interesting, if Pi perhaps considered, if even for a moment, that maybe it wasn't God but logic and reason that was guiding him.
Pi's parents manage a zoo. Eventually, they sell the animals and travel with them on a freighter from India to Canada. The freighter gets caught in a storm that sinks the entire vessel, killing everyone on board, except for Pi and a few of the animals that escape and swim away. Inexplicably, Pi makes it onto a lifeboat that doesn't capsize and in that lifeboat underneath a sheet is an adult, Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. How the tiger got there is never explained. All of the animals were in cages and drugged, so the tiger's presence makes no sense.
But, after the ship sinks, which Ang Lee charts spectacularly from what feels like one-long continuous take leading us from the bowels of the freighter to the depths of the Pacific, Pi gets stuck on a lifeboat with the tiger. Then, for a hour and a half, the movie is no different from Castaway (2000) or 127 Hours (2010) where it's just about a man trying to survive totally cut off from civilization and trapped in an arduous natural situation. The only wrinkle is that he's trapped with a tiger that he can't easily avoid and needs to tame or else get eaten.
Besides, adding a level of suspense and danger, I don't see the point of the tiger as a means of exploring the religious or faith aspects. The movie would have been potentially boring without the tiger, but not much is learned with having it there. Pi was already a vegetarian, so it wasn't as if he didn't have respect or compassion for animals. The only question is if animals have souls. Pi's father demonstrably proves that wild animals like tigers don't and aren't friends to humans.
Pi's curiosity seems quelled after his father's demonstration. There appears to be no more dispute. The two hours that follow only reinforce that over and over, so I'm not sure what was gained from having him spend time with the tiger. In any story of survival, one always wonders what keeps a person going against all odds. Pi credits the tiger for being his impetus to stay alive, but that feels like spin.
Aside from his first-time use of 3D, Ang Lee visually makes this film very self-reflective. At first, I was annoyed with his slow dissolves into pans and frequent composite shots. Eventually, I was warmed over by Ang Lee's constant use of the water as a pure and perfect mirror or optical illusion. The way he blends ocean and sky in his shots is beautiful to say the least, but I wasn't that impressed with the CGI.
Three Stars out of Five.
Rated PG for thematic content, peril and action sequences.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 7 mins.