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Award Nominee

Life Of Pi



Reviewer: Philip Price

Director: Ang Lee

Stars: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan

Released: 20th December 2012

There is a calmness in the film adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-seller Life of Pi. The calm of Ang Lee’s beautiful film matches the lovely tone of the book that is a survival/adventure tale of a boy and a tiger for younger readers while providing intellectual questions of religion and the ideas of why there is such intolerance for religious equality to older ones. It is a lovely story, a fascinating one that is sometimes so subtle in its ideas that as an audience member I was unsure if they were alluding to a certain point or not. The main idea of Pi or, as we quickly find out, Piscine Molitor Patel’s journey across the Pacific Ocean though seems to boil down to the testing of ones faith. In the story, Pi is curious as to what exactly shapes faith and what is outside the room in which he was inherently raised. This being Hinduism, Pi also embraces Christianity and Islam in his early life when looking for a path to follow. To embrace so many Gods is a sure sign that doubt will never enter the equation. This would be the easy road to take yet young Pi is keen on understanding the reasoning for the beliefs of each religion he steps into. He knows that doubt is what keeps faith strong, that if it did not exist everyone would believe with no problem. That he finds the strength of his faith once it has been tested is the central conceit of what played out in Martel’s novel and feels equally explored in David Magee’s screenplay. Having read the book shortly before seeing the film I was excited to see what type of translation it might become, but in a surprising turn Life of Pi is able to capture just as much the spirit of the story as it does the physical word on the page.
We are introduced to Pi first as an adult. In the way the story is translated to us we first feel it betrays us by letting us know it has a happy ending, that he survives what seemed to hold the suspense from the trailer. The book uses this technique as well, but just because it worked well within the written word didn’t mean it was going to necessarily translate well to the screen. At first, I had reservations as to why they would choose to include this aspect. It seemed unnecessary to have Irrfan Khan as the adult Pi divulge his story to a writer played by Rafe Spell. This device is more consistent within the first half hour of the film that builds up to the ship wreck. After that we do not hear from adult Pi until the end of the film. It is used as a way to relay the ideals, the mindset, and the world in which Pi lived and the values in which he relied before going on to experience the biggest challenge of his life. I can understand this as it would have been difficult to get across much of the expository material from the book without having Khan function as a type of narrator. In many ways this also allows for the overall journey of our protagonist to mean more, I still kind of wished they’d figured out a different way to do it. In the experience of watching the film it takes you out of the story more than it does emphasize the emotional core of the scene that follows it. As adult Pi explains his father and mother own a zoo in Pondicherry and he and brother Ravi live a childhood there that is ripe with wonderful experiences and tough lessons. They clearly love their home, but when their parents are forced to move their zoo from the land they never owned they must sell the animals they do own and find work elsewhere. This sets Pi and his family on a journey to Canada aboard a freighter that sinks and singles out Pi as a lone survivor who must survive alone in the Pacific with Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger.
Above everything else you might have heard about Life of Pi, the one at the top of the list is undoubtedly how beautiful it is. This is absolutely the umber one thing that will stay with you after you leave the theatre as well. Lee, who really has an eclectic filmography, has shown that he can pretty much do anything he finds interest in has crafted a gorgeous movie. Every frame is constructed so carefully, so specific to what in the imagination of film lovers is likely a pre-destined painting that Lee pictured in his mind as he read the book for the first time. While the spirit of the book that translated to the screen, as I mentioned earlier is mostly due to the wonderful way this picture looks. It embodies those words and without having to say anything the film gets its point across. There is never an over-abundance of music nor is there anyone to really have any dialogue with. Instead what we are left with are the magic if the visuals and the performance of newcomer Suraj Sharma. Sharma was picked from the audition when he went along with his brother who was hoping to get a role in the film. Having never acted before Sharma does more than capable work here as he brings a real, nuanced performance in that we see him physically transform through the course of his journey but he remains the same Pi we see in flashbacks at the beginning. At the core he is that same boy with a curious mind and well-intentioned heart. As he is left for longer and longer periods of time out at sea we watch as Pi becomes resourceful, using the lessons of his father, his honorary uncle, and his spiritual guides have taught him but it is not that these lessons keep him alive that is the point of the story it is how true Pi stays to his spirit. That is a hard thing to put across in body language, in facial expression but Sharma is skilled at putting on display the resilience Pi shows for what we believe he to be fighting for. It is in the final moments of the film that we are taken aback and challenged to think deeper about what we think that exactly was. It adds an unexpected layer to the film and maybe my favourite thing about it.
Many people called Martel’s novel un-filmable, but Lee and his dedicated gang of behind the scenes folks have produced a visually captivating film that, like the book, draws in the audience with its promise of adventure and thrilling sequences. Seriously, the sequence in which the ship sinks and Pi escapes is among one of the most achingly beautiful things I’ve ever seen put to film. It is as the film goes on that the story and its themes draw us in to the internal thoughts of a character who goes on this unbelievable journey and leaves us with an experience that is one not just of eye candy but where it is hard to deny the power it packs. As these types of films go they are sometimes easier to respect than to enjoy, but thankfully that is not the case with Life of Pi. Watching as Pi and Richard Parker form a relationship that for all kinds of reasons should not be able to exist, in many ways it is even unbelievable and represents an internal struggle with Pi himself that could be argued with closer examination and deeper discussion. I went in to the film with somewhat high expectations and I enjoyed the book thoroughly. It is an insightful piece of work, but a very easy read. It relays its ideas with ease and does so through a vessel that we can all relate to even if the circumstances are not as outlandish. I did fear that studio heads might have brought some of the content down to make it more family friendly, but it stayed close enough to the source to meet the story expectations on every level and naturally exceeding any idea of how this might have looked in my mind. From the beginning this has seemed to be nothing more than a simple story, one of a boy coming of age, but it is so much more than that and I can only hope audiences listen to all it has to say.

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