"Faith is the touching of a mystery. It is to perceive another dimension to absolutely everything in the world. In faith the mysterious meaning of life comes through. . . . To speak in the simplest possible terms: faith sees, knows, senses the presence of God in the world," writes Alexander Schmemann, a Russian Orthodox priest. There are not many novels these days about faith. But Yann Martel's Life of Pi (2001) spent several years on the bestseller list and has sold seven million copies. It is about faith as a survival tool and a source of courage and persistence.
Now Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee has made a breathtaking, mesmerizing, and totally astonishing movie of the book. He emphasizes the role of faith in the heart of a young man who loses everything only to gain even more in a harrowing adventure at sea.
Hindus, Christians, and Jews all hold to the cataclysmic power of faith. Dip into the sacred scripture of all three religions and you will find stories of believers who undergo sieges, suffering, and losses but are able to walk in the dark without fear. Doubt for them is not the enemy of faith but an essential element of it. After all, we are human and can only take so much. We don't see many movies about the different dimensions of faith but Ang Lee has made one that opens up this spiritual practice and enables us see it with fresh eyes.
Piscine Molitor Patel (Ayush Tandon), named after a French swimming pool, is the young son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, India. When his name leads him to becomes an object of ridicule at school, he takes the initiative and shortens it to Pi.
Pi is not only creative, he is also spiritual, which comes as a surprise to his secular parents who believe in the supremacy of reason and science. Pi is a Hindu who is comfortable with the idea of many gods and with his hero Krishna. But he also finds himself attracted to Christianity and Islam. He meets regularly with a priest and gets a prayer mat to pray five times a day. Although his father opposes this multifaith approach, Pi refuses to give up this rich and rewarding path.
In a linchpin scene, Pi wants to connect with Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger in the family zoo. When his father comes upon him trying to feed the huge cat, he is very angry. Pi believes that animals have souls whereas his father believes that they are wild beasts of prey who are not to be trusted. He goes on to teach his son an indelible lesson about the tiger.
Just when the 16-year-old Pi (Suraj Sharma) is getting interested in girls, his father decides to leave India and move to Winnipeg, Canada. The family and some of the animals board a Japanese cargo ship. In a terrible storm, the boat sinks and Pi is the only human survivor. Soon afterwards he is joined in a small lifeboat by a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and the Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The teenage boy who has compassion for all creatures watches in horror as the war for supremacy between the animals begins. In the end, just he and the tiger are left.
Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, Brokeback Mountain, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) has fashioned the only visual successor to the 3-D artistry of Avatar, amazing us with a scenes of a dazzling school of flying fish, the marvels of luminous jellyfish, the leap of a humpback whale, and ocean water as a source of beauty and terror. In addition, Lee's use of digital technology is magical, especially in the many different scenes involving Richard Parker.
Pi is convinced that God has a plan for his life and during his 227-day ordeal at sea, he is repeatedly confronted by mysteries as he squares off against the tiger and then decides to make peace with him. He must also come to terms with his grief over the deaths of his father, mother, and brother. Pi is not prepared for the improvised nature of his life on the boat with Richard Parker. He discovers that the tiger can't be tamed but he can be trained. He admits to himself that his fear of the tiger keeps him alert but his tending to both of their daily needs gives his life purpose.
In the closing section of Life of Pi, the adult protagonist (Irrfan Khan), now living in Canada, finishes telling his story to a journalist. He reveals that his spiritual adventure was puzzling to those who interviewed him after he successfully landed in Mesico. They insisted upon a reasonable version of what happened.
Life of Pi is an exhilarating drama about the mysteries which light up our lives and have no rhyme or reason on their own; the faith that enables us to make a leap into the dark; the teachings of animals; the fierce and tranquil sides of nature; and the powerful instinct we all have for survival. This spiritually alluring film can bring you to a transformed appreciation for the baffling, curious, and inexplicable dimensions of life and the world around you.
Screened at The 50th New York Film Festival: September/October 2012.
Special features on the DVD include closed-caption and "A Remarkable Vision."