Review: Life of Pi

 

Religion is a curious thing. Though countless lives have been lost over millennia based on squabbles over practices, deities, and even cities, there remains a strange unifying quality to all religions: Live a good life. The devil is in the details, of course, and thus causes the conflict between individuals, races, and nations. Ultimately, it is a silly thing when such a common unifying premise to all religions should serve to unite all of mankind. From a practical perspective, what true use is religion to our lives, or does it even matter at all? This question is one of the many posed in Ang Lee’s often astonishing Life of Pi, which chronicles not quite a religious journey, but rather, a spiritual odyssey.

Piscine, or as he prefers, Pi, Patel is an inquisitive young man whose Indian upbringing has caused him to question all of the religions he encounters, from Hindu to Christian and even Muslim. Instead of banning them all from his life, he adopts a bit of each, and becoming something of a religious renaissance man. In a clever moment early on in the film, he even prays to the Hindu god, Vishnu, thanking him for helping him discover Christ. The religious focus in Life of Pi dominates the first half hour, and then submerges as subtext when the plot kicks in. Under difficult times, Pi’s family decides to move from India all the way to Canada, along with the animals they keep in their zoo. It’s a tumultuous time for Pi, who at sixteen is only beginning to discover himself, but the true test for his identity not just as an individual, but as a species is yet to come. While sailing across the Pacific, a storm of Biblical proportions strikes the ship, and Pi is forced off the vessel and into lifeboat as he watches his family and many animals helplessly perish beneath the ocean. The sole human survivor, Pi is stunned to discover that another animal has boarded his tiny lifeboat, a bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Pi’s fight to stay alive reaches beyond his own physical endurance and becomes a test of his spirituality.

Everything involving Pi’s battle for survival in the middle of the ocean is quite simply masterful. In addition to the tension of being stranded in the middle of the ocean, Pi must contend with a fearsome beast who keeps him on edge throughout the picture. Ang Lee’s most effective storytelling stroke is that he refuses to humanize Richard Parker at all. Any time we are provided with a gaze into the tiger’s eyes, there may be a deceptive compassion present, but in truth it is only the feelings we as humans project onto him, as Pi’s father wisely warns early in the film. This determined thesis of keeping Richard Parker’s beastly nature is capitalized with quiet brilliance in the film’s final third, in a moment that is as resonant and reflective as any moment in cinema this year. As superior as the roughly hour and fifteen minutes of Pi’s aquatic journey are, the film is bookended by an adult Pi who recounts his story to a man looking to write it. This instantly takes away any major suspense from the tale when considering Pi’s life and death stakes, but it does not completely detract from the enterprise as a whole. This is largely due to the central performance, and Pi is played by a new face, Suraj Sharma, who carries the weight of an epic all on his own, from small victories to dark moments of despair.

The fine but unexceptional bookends of the film are likewise reflected with expository voiceover segments, but the central conflict of the film is almost entirely visual, and provides Ang Lee with room to fully flex his cinematic muscles for the first time since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Foremost are the film’s visual effects, which are legitimately jaw dropping. There tends to be a shiny sheen to most CGI creations, but the animals in Life of Pi are the closest yet to photo real, especially Richard Parker, who is such a key character to the narrative. The 3D photography in Life of Pi is also a vital aspect of the storytelling, especially when married to its CGI elements. Two major storms comprise the film’s action beats, and Lee’s compositions married with camera movement make the most of the stereoscopic format. Indeed, like Avatar and Hugo before it, Life of Pi makes the case that when in the hands of skilled filmmaker, 3D can not simply be a visual enhancement, but must also work for the purpose of the narrative. The film takes its protagonist to the very brink of his own existence, and by extension, his understanding of all things. Even when we feel we know the final outcome, Ang Lee’s daring tale ratifies the notion that the journey is far more important than the destination.

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~ by romancinema on November 25, 2012.

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