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Life of Pi (2012)

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

Whether your belief system is atheist, agnostic, or theist, Life of Pi has something important for you. Whenever a film is adapted from a book, there’s always the question of comparison between the two. With Pi, this question is not simply a debate for purists. The book has an intentional structure involving a writer, who interviews a protagonist, who tells two stories. The relationships between these four elements are critical to Pi’s work. The film provides an excellent and visceral rendering of the main story, which is the most important thing to get right. The second story is also well done, carrying more emotion in the film than in the book. However, the film could have been more compelling in its rendering of the narrative context around the two stories, so as to more richly tie the four elements together.

A Canadian writer travels to India to write a novel he has in mind, but after a time of writing, it turns out the “story is emotionally dead.” So he trashes it and, feeling restless, travels about India. In Pondicherry, he happens upon a man who says he has a story “that will make you believe in God.” He says the writer can find Pi Patel, the protagonist of the story, back in Canada (to this point, my introduction to the story is actually not in the film, but rather is the context set in the book). The writer finds Pi, who, in a series of interviews, tells him a story of a shipwreck and being lost at sea for months. Pi’s family was traveling aboard a freighter transporting animals from his father’s recently-closed zoo. In the confusion of the shipwreck, Pi ends up aboard a lifeboat with a fully grown Bengal tiger. At sea, he must learn how to stay alive at all, not to mention staying alive in the company of this quite dangerous creature. Beyond this, he must wrestle with the tension between his desire to rid himself of the tiger, his love and compassion for animals, and the prospect of complete aloneness at sea — as well as his crisis of belief in God. Running time: 127 min.

Aboard the lifeboat, the film’s energy gives vivid life to Pi’s tension between danger, compassion, and loneliness — as well as providing a turn toward wonder and mystery. A lifeboat is a crucible for questions of meaning and value, and in Life of Pi, it most definitely serves this role. If we stretch a bit, extending the film’s exploration and entering into Pi’s lifeboat experience metaphorically, we might entertain a bit of self-reflection: What are the dangers that we face aboard our own “lifeboats”? What wins, compassion, fear of danger, or fear of loneliness? How does a deep-seated drive toward companionship distort or exacerbate our battle between compassion and danger? Other questions are possible and, even if we don’t ask them, the film does well at bringing us into Pi’s life in the crucible.

If you are concerned that Life of Pi tries some form of religious persuasion, have no fear. The film offers no specific spiritual answers — or, if you prefer, it offers all spiritual answers. Pi’s work is not centered in what we believe, but rather in how we believe.

A critical part of the relationship between Pi’s four elements is the story’s question about belief in God which, in turn, has everything to do with the two stories. Compared to the book, the film’s compression of the second story, together with its visual depiction of Pi telling the story, gives it a more powerful rendering (it is less detailed and less rich than the main story, but that’s by design). This allows a clearer contrast between the two stories, which is crucial to understanding Pi's perspective on belief. Connecting the two stories are the sequences where the writer interviews Pi. These are true to the book, yet perhaps too much so. I could more highly credit Life of Pi's filmcraft if the filmmakers had more brought more life to the interviews. This would have been possible by embodying the writer's trajectory and finding tonal continuity between the lifeboat and interview sequences. Aside from these major detractions, the filmcraft is strong — and strongest when at sea.

Whether your belief system — that is, your faith — is atheist, agnostic, or theist, the film's alternate perspective on the question of belief is a very important one to understand. If your belief system does not yet account for this perspective, I contend (my opinion, obviously) that you are selling yourself short — and selling your belief system short. I'd say more, but without spoilers, it's very difficult to say more than I've already said. Pi's perspective merely opens the conversation, leaving much more to say and explore but, if you are serious about your belief system, the film is very much worth your time.

The shipwreck scene is intense. With the tiger and other animals in the film there are themes and scenes of animal-on-animal violence. None of these are terribly graphic, yet the details may leave less to the imagination than some might prefer. Very slight use of language.

  • Director: Ang Lee
  • Screenplay: David Magee, based on novel by Yann Martel
  • Leads: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall
  • Cinematography: Claudio Miranda
  • Music: Mychael Danna

In perusing traditional film reviews, it appears that Life of Pi is a bit of Rorschach test. Of the reviews I looked at, none actually understood the four elements of the film and their relationship (it is not strictly necessary to have read the novel to understand these, though it does help). Thus, though my usual process is to cull through traditional reviews and provide links to ones that I believe are helpful, in this case I find it hard to recommend any, other than for remarks about filmcraft. So, I've atypically provided commentary with the review links and, to illustrate the range of misreadings, I've also included reviews that I can't recommend at all. In any case, most reviewers recognize the film to have excellent filmcraft, even if they didn't get what the film is doing.

  • Info on IMDb
  • Reviews on Rottentomatoes (88%)
  • Reviews on Metacritic (78 of 100)
  • Paste Magazine's review (9.0) is at least honest enough to admit not knowing what the film is doing, simply saying that "a whole new wrinkle...seems...crucial," while offering no comment on its significance.
  • By toning down commentary on the film's spiritual aspects and by sticking mostly to filmcraft, James Berardinelli's review at Reelviews.net (3 of 4) mostly, but not entirely, avoids exposing its silence on the film's central exploration.
  • The Los Angeles Times review (by Betsy Sharkey) saves itself by simply ignoring the film's ending altogether, thus embodying the wisdom that, when you don't know, it's best to keep quiet.
  • One reviewer on Film School Rejects, who loved the film (grade: A), almost escaped like the LA Times, by ignoring the ending — but then felt compelled to toss in a comment that the ending was an unnecessary "downside," thus displaying ignorance of its importance.
  • In another review on Film School Rejects, the film is tossed out (grade: C-) because it didn't ask spiritual questions in the way the reviewer thought they should be asked. I'm guessing this is because, thinking incorrectly that it "purports to be a warm and loving look at faith," the reviewer didn't understand which spiritual questions the film actually is asking.
  • A review on Crosswalk misses the point in its focus on and defense of a bit Christian truth. The truth is good, but not particularly relevant to what Pi is doing.
  • The review on Christianity Today Movies (2.5 of 4) makes the same mistake as Crosswalk, but then goes one further by sweeping the ending under the postmodern rug, so to speak.
  • Buy Life of Pi DVD on Amazon
  • Buy Life of Pi book on Amazon
    || iTunes US
    || iTunes Canada
    || iTunes Mexico
  • Go to the Netflix page
  • Go to the Blockbuster page

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NOTE: Although Before viewing talks don't have spoilers, comments below MAY have spoilers
(spoilers are allowed in comments when a Before viewing talk does not have a corresponding After viewing talk for discussing the film)

One Response to “Life of Pi”

  1. Took discussion of the film one step further in an exchange of thoughts with the reviewer of the second Film School Rejects review noted above. There are **spoilers** in the discussion, but you can have a look over here (scroll down to the comments).

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