Life of Pi: not enlightening, but compelling
Ang Lee’s film of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel does spirituality badly but storytelling brilliantly.
Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s 2002 Booker Prize-winning novel, has long been marked ‘unfilmable’. With good reason, too: a story about an adolescent lost at sea with a Bengal Tiger, it was going to need a CGI budget so big it could put all of ailing Europe in the black. What’s more, this ostensibly spiritualist novel talks some pretty big game, one character proclaiming Pi’s tale enough to ‘make you believe in God’. US President Barack Obama, one of many converts to Pi’s gospel, even went as far as to deem it ‘proof’ of almighty grace in a letter to the author.
Even for a director as visionary as Ang Lee, this was going to be hard to live up to. Unsurprisingly, by the end of his adaptation, I found myself distinctly untouched by holy revelation. There were no winged cherubs, no glorious light, and I hadn’t even the slightest desire to reassess my atheism. What I did experience, mind, was a ruddy good story, beautifully realised, and I wonder if that was the point all along.
A Canadian author (Rafe Spall) tracks down a man who, he has been told, has just the story to jumpstart his waning literary career. A series of modern-day exchanges between the author and middle-aged Piscine ‘Pi’ Patel (played superbly by Irrfan Khan) frame the fantastical life he genially retells.
Growing up in the zoo his family owns in Pondicherry, India, Pi develops a fascination with religion. He soon begins practising Hinduism, Christianity and Islam simultaneously, much to the disdain of his fiercely rationalistic father. Alongside his worship of Christ, Allah and Vishnu, he begins to forge another deep spiritual connection with the zoo’s prize specimen – a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Fresh-faced newcomer Suraj Sharma takes over the role of the 17-year-old Pi as his family decide to up sticks and set sail for Canada, bringing their unsold animals along with them. During a fearsome, mid-Atlantic storm, their ship capsizes in a stark, white-knuckle sinking sequence unrivalled in the history of cinema. Scrabbling into a lifeboat, Pi and Richard Parker manage to escape while his family go down with the ship.
With overtones of The Old Man and The Sea and the Biblical testing of Job, Pi fights for survival, bolstered only by his faith in God’s deliverance and his unflinching devotion to his tiger. But while this may be our hero’s own 40 days and 40 nights, God rarely comes up, aside from the odd imploring of the heavens. Sharma’s inexperience sometimes grins through, his hammy outbursts raising a smile where they shouldn’t, but as with many of Lee’s films, the setting takes centre stage and he imbues his visuals with the air of pantheistic wonderment that his protagonist fails to articulate. Crisp, painterly and (for once) only enhanced by the use of 3D, Lee creates a magical seascape which is at times fearsome and desolate but in others, tranquil, wondrous and heavenly.
The surreal narrative, spurred on by this wishy-washy spiritualism, is hollow but charming all the same. But when Pi finally washes up on dry land, the film lands back in reality with a bump. In need of a credible, sans tiger account that will satisfy those looking for answers about the accident, Pi – in a sobering, heartfelt monologue – tells another story about what happened.
A teary-eyed, adult Pi asks the author which story he prefers. When he replies that he prefers the one with the tiger, Pi declares: ‘So it is with God.’
This is a rather bizarre statement to be hearing in a supposedly spiritualist film. If anything, it echoes the sentiment of hardline atheists, presenting belief as something that imposes false, coherent meaning upon life’s vicissitudes, only distancing us from essential truth.
Life of Pi is a critically confused spiritualist tale, but taken as a paean to pure, unabashed, for-its-own-sake storytelling, it is incredibly compelling. Having finished his yarn, Khan’s Pi is asked by his guest what his story all means. He counters: ‘Why does it have to mean anything?’ Why indeed.
Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.
See the trailer for Life of Pi here:
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.