Life of Pi
I’ve made a huge mistake. Releasing my Top Ten list before seeing this film was probably pretty stupid, but thanks to the anachronistic nature of the Australian release schedule I saw little other choice in the matter. Though it is too early to say now, only hours after having seen it – declaring a best of so swiftly would be even stupider – I daresay that when it comes time to revise my Top Ten come February this film will be in the fighting for a position.
While this statement may come as no surprise to many, based solely on the movies critical reception elsewhere, for me it is a meaningful one. I didn’t much love the novel on which the film is based, the tone and tempo of the trailers turned me off the adaptation and I’m not a religious man; it was only the fact that I am such an Ang Lee fan that forced me into seeing the film. It’s fitting, somehow, to see this film a skeptic and leave a fanatic.
The story of Pi starts a little strangely, with two introduced characters talking about India, nomenclature and religion; there is barely a big animal to be seen. These small, social scenes are the most Ang-ian of the entire film (in so much as he even has a consistent auteur style at this stage) but strangely enough they were also the weakest; the teen angst and young adult romance flab on an otherwise streamlined script. Visually though the film is stunning from the first frame, Lee going large despite the seemingly slight stature of these moments. The Parisian pool sequence showing how Pi got his name is particularly superb: a man dives in to the deep end of his namesake, the water disappearing from around him, leaving the sole swimmer in the center of the shot surrounded only by sky; the first example of a visual motif that will follow the film through.
The removal of horizons and blurring of reflections in many of the films shots are not only beautiful stylistic effects – each frame of film deserving placement within its namesake – but also key visual signifiers of the picture’s purpose, reflections of what is seen in the script itself. Here stories are told and re-told, elements of one mirroring the other either literally ( Spoiler to give an example) or through this imagery ( the large luminescent whale and the lights of the sinking ship, say) until reality is almost entirely inseparable from fiction and truth from parable.
What is the point of its parable, since to be a parable it must have one? The answer is two-fold. One side of which is something of a spoiler and so I will save it for last, first though I will write a little about the more obvious meaning of the movie. There is a passage from Hemingway’s Farewell To Arms that matches this movie’s message almost perfectly, it is the one in which he describes the ants trapped on the burning log, the one that he could, if he wanted, simply lift from the fire, the one that he watches burn.
In the eyes of Pi both people, animals and islands are all equal; they all need each other, they all eat each other. We Westerners put up these lines, we say that only humans have a ‘soul’, that only our species need be saved in such a crises as a capsizing but this is an imaginary division, one unfounded in drama as it is in reality. People are animals in act and attitude, people are places in personality and peer. We’re all just dirt in the ground to the dire gods up above; their playthings, their fantasies. We all share the same cosmic origin, the same atoms.
Which brings me to the second side of the films meaning, which is where the Spoilers and Controversy surely start. The stories in the bible, in the Koran and in the cool Hindu comics that Pi reads are all as unbearably unbelievable as the one he tells the Yann. There is no way that a rational person can take them seriously but then, you’re not supposed to. These stories are told in the strange ways that they are so that we can swallow them, they are weird yes, but we almost always still find them better than the reality around us. They are a comfort of sorts, perhaps one akin to repression but then sometimes reality is better off repressed. Pi’s story is an example of this, his tale of tigers and terrifying islands ‘as it is with religion’.
For me it is this symbolism, this sweet but subversive meaning that made the movie worth watching but even without it Pi is a treat, without any words at all the film would be wonderful. The audience that I saw it with were not literati, they probably didn’t see anything beneath the surface but they still very much enjoyed what they did see: laughing, screaming and jumping in their seat, on a veritable adventure of their own. That the film can satisfy on both fronts is a sure sign of greatness, the kind of greatness that should probably earn it a place on year end lists, whether you believe it or not.