Steve Curless's Blog

Miscellaneous Musings
NOVEMBER 27, 2012 1:23PM

Ang Lee's Rhapsodic Life of Pi

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Life of Pi is—and I’m choosing my words very carefully here—an astounding movie. Time after time, scene after scene, image after image, you simply will not believe your eyes (in the most positive meaning of the phrase). The movie glides with the supple grace of Richard Parker himself, from Pi’s Robinson Crusoe-on-a-boat adventures to his hallucinations in his fevered, starving loneliness and back to harsh sun-scorched reality.” ~ Jim Lane, Sacramento News and Review

I seldom watch movies in theaters. I’ve probably averaged less than ½ trip to the cinema per year for the past 10 years. Tickets cost too much, my wife and I don’t care for overpriced popcorn, and my home theater system sounds better to my plebian ears than the theater’s, or, at least, I can play it louder. All I have to do is wait a year or so after its theatrical release and I can watch virtually any film in the cozy comfort of my own living room or bedroom without sacrificing inordinately by not seeing it on the not-so-big screen of my nearby gazillion-screened cinema complex.

However, I had second thoughts about this when “
Life of Pi” was released to a fanfare of melodious reviews from some of the most respected movie reviewers in the industry. Foremost among them was Roger Ebert’s four star review not only of the film itself but of the 3-D version of it no less. You see, the venerable Ebert has spent the past several years railing against 3-D films. But not this time. This time he wrote: “What astonishes me is how much I love the use of 3-D in “Life of Pi.” I’ve never seen the medium better employed, not even in Avatar, and although I continue to have doubts about it in general, Lee never uses it for surprises or sensations, but only to deepen the film’s sense of places and events.”

The withering assault on my resistance continued with my viewing of a wondrous
movie trailer that almost made me cry with joy, with my learning that the film was directed by the same man, Ang Lee, who directed my all-time favorite film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and with my hearing that the film’s radiantly spiritual theme unfolds in Lee’s patented lyrical style. I came to the irrepressible realization that I just had to see it and that it had to be in 3-D.

Plot Summary

“Life of Pi,” adapted from a screenplay adapted from a novel of the same title, is the fictional story of Piscine Molitor Patel, a strikingly bright, earnest, and reflective Indian lad named after an elaborate but now abandoned swimming pool complex in Paris, France who grows to late teenhood in a picturesque Indian town where his parents own and run a small zoo. When Piscine is very young, he’s relentlessly teased by other children who mockingly call him “Pissing” until he shortens his name to “Pi” in reference to the ubiquitous mathematical constant and earns acceptance from his peers and teachers by dazzling them with ostentatious recitations of pi’s numerical value written out to blackboards full of numbers to the right of the decimal point.

Very early on, Pi exhibits a precociously philosophical and spiritual temperament whose Hindu cultural and religious roots are progressively enriched by cross fertilization from resonant strains of Christianity and Islam. His cynical father gently teases him for this, but Pi presses on with his pious observances of the rituals of all three religions and quietly exhibits uncommon perspicacity for one so young. This eventually draws him to an exceptional young woman in his community and her to him, and it appears that they might be soulmates destined for marriage except that rising political turmoil forces his parents to give up the zoo, sell most of the animals, and set out across the Pacific Ocean on a Japanese freighter with the family and a few animals in tow to build a new zoo and a new life in more tranquil Canada.

However, there’s little tranquility on the high seas, and the brave move ends in tragedy in the middle of a raging ocean storm that swiftly sinks the freighter and leaves Pi stranded on a lifeboat with an orangutan, an injured zebra, a ferocious hyena, and a magnificent Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Before long, only Pi and the tiger remain to battle each other and the unforgiving elements of the desolate ocean as they desperately cling to tenuous life.

Decades later, a dispirited young writer in search of a good story comes to interview an introspective middle-aged man with an entrancing but wildly improbable tale to tell of a boy and a tiger. And, to muddy the waters, the man also tells an alternative and darker tale and invites the writer to pick the story he likes best.

Final Thoughts

The esteemed “integral” philosopher Ken Wilber explains that there are at least four interrelated perspectives from which to comprehensively interpret and evaluate works of art: (1) the artist’s intent; (2) the socio-cultural context of the art; (3) the form of the art itself; and (4) the viewer’s response to the art. I feel singularly unqualified to credibly handle any of these tasks much less at all of them together, but least unqualified to take a crude and mercifully brief stab at #4.

In short, I loved “Life of Pi.” I loved the the minimalist and pointed dialogue; the spellbinding 3-D imagery; the gorgeous, deeply spiritualized scenes of Pi’s childhood in India; the harrowing tale of his relentless and resourceful fight for survival; the contemplative, mildly melancholic, and hard-won sagacity of the storyteller; and, last but hardly least, the fact that the film dares to be about something touchingly profound even as it refuses to spoon-feed the viewer with a tidy elucidation of its meaning.

I heartily recommend “Life of Pi” to anyone captivated by the
trailer and whose heart quickens at the prospect of seeing a deeply meaningful film of surpassing, life-affirming beauty. And if you can, please do yourself the supreme favor of seeing it in glorious 3-D.

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I saw that Life of Pi at a 3D theatre last Saturday. Totally terrific. I often watch movies because they are a brief escape from boring reality. I agree with you on the riduculous cost of admission, popcorn and drinks.

BTW, the book author , Yann Martel lives in Saskatoon. This is were I also live.


Thank you, Lyle. I'm glad you also enjoyed the movie. Tis the season for great movies for grow ups.
Thank you, Lyle. I'm glad you also enjoyed the movie. Tis the season for great movies for grown ups.