by Niles Schwartz
Life’s a bitch, so they say, and then you die.
Or rather, sometimes life’s getting stuck on a small lifeboat with a man-eating tiger in the middle of the Pacific, starving and feeling utterly alone, and then you live, though you might as well be dead given all you’ve endured.
“And so it is with God,” says Pi Patel (played by Irrfan Khan as the adult narrator, and Suraj Sharma as a young man), chief character of the modern fairy tale Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel and directed by the versatile Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Ride With the Devil, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hulk, Brokeback Mountain, Lust Caution, Taking Woodstock). And so it is with this film, which we’re told, early on, will make us believe in God. We’re told this, and because the film doesn’t live up such a lofty goal, we may forget that the narrator doesn’t promise such consolation. I think that’s the point here, and there’s a chilly ambivalence beneath the blanket of warmth with which Lee has decorated things, from the friendly storybook credit sequence of animals peaceably existing in a zoo, to the family smiles that wrap things up. This CGI-laden 3-D spectacle is a little deceiving with its children’s story book cover. Beyond “belief,” Life of Pi is an effective meditation on loneliness and despair, and the stories we tell ourselves to cope, such as a benevolent guide engineering and overseeing the Universe. Whether it’s God, an animal, or your own sense of permanence, it’s drawn up from the same imaginative binary code. Does Richard Parker, the tiger with a human’s name (through a clerical error), have a “soul”? Or is that what we project onto him? Are we watching Life of Pi from a basic Western view of binaries (God/no God) instead of the Eastern one that gave birth to Pi, a Hindu culture of millions and millions of gods? I’m not sure if belief or non-belief is the central issue of this beautiful and horrifying moving tapestry, leading a few smarmy viewers to dismiss it.
The frame story of a Canadian writer (Rafe Spall) listening to the adult Pi’s story may be partly to blame. It’s the tired set-up of an anxious white man getting nuggets of wisdom from a calm and wizened man of color. The writer is obviously looking for something to believe in, and Pi’s uncle Mamaji (Elie Alouf) has told him that Pi’s story would make him believe in God. However, when we see Mamaji in flashbacks, a man with a comically broad chest and skinny legs (caused by a birth accident, deformations that make him a great swimmer), we can see how his existence is tied to a magical sensibility of exaggeration. Pi’s life is based on tall-tales, whether regarding Mamaji’s birth story or his own in which he’s delivered by a zoo herpetologist, whose lizard is soon trampled to death afterwards. The poor lizard’s fate, explains Pi, is “the way of karma, the way of god,” and links him to the animals of his father’s zoo and inexplicable dictates of the gods. His name was originally “Piscine,” named after a French swimming pool his uncle adored, the water so clear that when Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda photograph swimmers from below, they seem to be floating through the sky above. That’s an important motif here: the sky and water coming together, as above, so below – moving between the pairs of opposites.
So when schoolmates make fun of Piscine because his name sounds like “Pissing,” he shortens it to the transcendent number of “Pi,” or 3.14 (and so on). Pi lives out his fairy-tale childhood by impressing his classmates through memorizing that number, writing out as many of pi’s digits as he can on several chalkboards. His name connects reason and mathematics to transcendence. Pi’s father (Adil Hussain), is an atheist who says that “Religion is darkness.” He is committed to Reason and grateful for Western Medicine, which saved him. The boy is closer to his mother (Tabu), for whom religion is the one link to the past (her family disowned her for marrying beneath her station). The mother tells the story of how the entire universe could be seen in Krishna’s mouth, and Pi reads the same story in comic books, saying that “the gods were my super-heroes.” He becomes fascinated with Jesus Christ and the irrational Christian myth of a God who kills his own son. He begins practicing Islam and reciting the Koran. Meanwhile, the adult Pi tells us that he teaches courses on Jewish Kabbalah.
According to the father, “Believing in everything at the same time is the same as not believing in anything at all.” As Lee puts this prologue together with overlapping images on his 3-D canvas, all things seamlessly blending in holy unity, adolescent weariness sneaks up on us. Curiosity compels Pi to sneak into the den of zoo’s most fearsome creature, the tiger Richard Parker. He extends his hands through the bars, offering raw meat to the slowly approaching predator.
The father hurriedly pulls Pi away from the cage and scolds him. For Pi, “Animals have souls. I have seen it in their eye.” “The tiger is not your friend,” the father explains. “You’re seeing your own emotions reflected back at you.” The father scars Pi visually by making him watch Richard Parker grab a living goat through the bars, and quickly killing it before dragging it back to the den’s rear for feeding (mercifully, the audience doesn’t have to watch what Pi sees). The mood of Life of Pi drifts into a less fantastical one, Pi moving on from Jules Verne’s fantasies to Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, then to Camus’ The Stranger, as if the murkiness of doubt and a world of hungry natural drives were mercilessly chopping away at faith. The political situation in India has also become more “real,” smothering this fantasy world. The Patel family plans to cross the Pacific to Canada, sell their zoo animals in North America, and set up a new life.
God comes back in the form of a storm that the precocious Pi tempts. The freight ship carrying the Patel family, and all of their animals, sinks and Pi is the only human survivor. The sequence is a soul-wrenching confrontation with the grandiosity of life collapsing beneath absurdity. Pi struggles underwater and watches the ship slowly descend into the depths, surrounded by confused creatures who were raised, as he was, in comfortable zoo confines. They are now gasping for air and being torn apart by ravenous sharks. Pi stops swimming and floats still, staring at the large hunk of metal and its dimming lights falling away into the abyss, with all he ever loved and knew trapped inside. On the small lifeboat with an injured zebra and spotted hyena, whose lethality keeps Pi hanging off the boat’s edge, the extreme weight of this visual spectacle of chaos in Nature tests the limits of some viewers’ tolerance. Animal lovers in particular, I have seen, are most affected by this, and even angry at the film because of how merciless, even sadistic, this seems. With cages and helpless lives swallowed and devoured by the deep, Lee is tests our pity.
The respite of the lifeboat reinforces the grim bottom line of existence. The true harmony in Nature is one of murder and eating. The arrival of a friendly orangutan (floating on bananas) is offset by the hyena’s hunger. Both the herbivorous zebra and ape are soon gone, but coming to munch on the hyena is Richard Parker, who had erstwhile been hidden near the boat’s storage bay. Whereas the small hyena was a formidable but perhaps manageable foe, Pi is clearly outmatched by the awesome tiger, who lived on several pounds of fresh meat daily and exceeds Pi in size, strength, and speed. Pi frantically constructs a smaller lifeboat out of oars and lifejackets, and drifts separately from Richard Parker, the two floating mechanisms held together by a rope.
Pi can’t tame Richard Parker, but is able to establish a degree of mastery that enables them to coexist over a 227-day period, during which he imagines they establish a bond. They drink rain and sometimes are given meals of flying fish (pursued by their own gilled predators) who unfortunately find themselves trapped in the boat (and so victims of Fate, not unlike Pi and Richard Parker). Like in those early images of Mamaji swimming in the Piscine pool, the sky and the water become one and the same thing. The tiger and Pi are doubles dependent on each other. At one instance Pi could kill the tiger with a hatchet. But looking into Richard Parker’s eyes, he’s helpless. The gods that schooled him have implanted the irrational instinct of pity. Even though it means risking his own skin, he helps the tiger back onto the boat. Staring into the black ocean, they dream together, seeing a universe filled with images of animals eating each other (even a giant squid taking down a whale) and evolving into other creatures. This vision is a Noah’s Ark not of salvation but of murder coming to proliferation. It’s a breathtaking visual journey into the infinite, reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Lee’s images are stressing an artificiality to everything before finally resting on the sunken ship slumbering at the bottom. The macrocosm of an entire universe becomes the microcosm of Pi’s insignificant existence contained within his mind’s eye.
An oncoming storm isn’t just a storm, but a permutation of the storm that earlier sank the freight ship. It is God again, and all Pi can do is holler at Him, demanding answers. The boat ends up on a mysterious island (echoes of Jules Verne) shaped like a sleeping human being (Vishnu?), populated by meerkats and edible fruit. But this lost paradise is only another bastion of pure feeding. Pi finds a human tooth in one of the plants (a symbol for eating and reference to anthropomorphism), and notices how the fresh water hole poisons the fish and animal life at night. “All the island gave by day, it took away by night.” It is carnivorous.
The inevitable parting of Pi and Richard Parker is quietly agonizing, simply yet deeply sad, and carries the full sense of what I think Life of Pi is about. There’s no nod to us that the rational truth of Pi’s father has been overcome through this ordeal of unlikely survival. Richard Parker’s disappearance into the wilderness is unceremonious, reminding us of how alone we may be in this “Circle of Life,” so different from what we see in The Lion King. The film’s gesture of faith is not an answer or reassurance for us, but a Kierkegaardian leap. There is fear and trembling, and then there is the embrace of what’s absurd.
Insurance agents from the Japanese company that owned the ship want to know the truth of what happened, and after they don’t believe the story that the film has just shown us, Pi tells them a different story. In this alternative narrative, there is more than a single human survivor on the lifeboat, and there was murder and cannibalism. Pi was the only survivor. What story do we believe? And how can we bear to live with ourselves and our ideals if we have to construct a fairy tale on top of what’s real, as something terrible lies waiting for us at the other end of our most precious sentiments (we may also wonder about this with Michael Haneke’s upcoming Amour)? The Nietzschean affirmation of life in all of its torture and meaninglessness is easier in theory and on paper than in living moment to moment.
The digitalism of this film feels appropriate. The barrage of amazing 3-D tableaus Ang Lee and Claudio Miranda serve works on the level of spectacular special effects entertainment, but the filmmaker understands that our human eyes know, after all, that the tiger isn’t real. This isn’t to say that the film’s musings about God and religion are the wholly opposite for what people have mistaken them as (I feel the same way about the mechanical bird at the happy ending conclusion of Blue Velvet, to which Silver Linings Playbook certainly nods its optimistic head). The longing for the Eternal is there in Life of Pi, and not condescending. In fact, in this year with its Mayan Calendar expiration date, there’s been a lot of that going around, explored with the utmost sincerity and passion on the part of several filmmakers.
In a recent interview, the controversial literary blowhard Camille Paglia has said that “spiritual quest was one of the great themes of the ’60s that has been lost and forgotten – that reverent embrace of all the world religions…[People] have sunk into this shallow, snobby, liberal style of stereotyping religious believers as ignorant and medieval, which is total nonsense.” Paglia, who is bent on showing us how George Lucas – no doubt inspired by myth in his construction of Star Wars – is cinema’s greatest artist, obviously hasn’t taken movies that seriously in recent years (when I had the chance to briefly speak with her, she admitted as much), a luxury that affords her so many generalizations. But whether in The Tree of Life, The Master, Hugo, Uncle Boonmee, Silver Linings Playbook, Holy Motors, Moonrise Kingdom, or here in Life of Pi (and several other pictures), the theme of spiritual quest is vibrant. One of the things that I believe caught people off guard with The Master was how Paul Thomas Anderson wasn’t at all interested in criticizing his cultish characters as being foolish – this was no Scientology “expose.” What his film conveyed were deep longings for permanence and meaning that soared beyond an individual’s fruitless life span. Forget George Lucas and Star Wars. If Joseph Campbell were alive today, he would have a smorgasbord of other films to talk about.
Life of Pi also brings to mind another recent film, Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, a great adventure yarn that depicts the soul’s raw and desolate winter. The Grey follows a group of helpless men drained of their resources, pursued by hungry carnivorous animals that mean to dominate and eat them. But rather than dwelling on carnage for exploitative effect, it is interested in the pursuit of solace in belief systems or cherished memories . The central character, the marksman Ottway (Liam Neeson), is a widower hired by an oil refining company to keep watch over workers in northern Alaska. “I move like I imagine the damned do,” he says to himself. “I’ve stopped doing this world any real good.” Outside, the buzz of ambient electricity surrounds him, the images captured by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi brushing against us with a distinct graininess, an organic quality distinct from Pi‘s digital cleanliness. An airplane crash leaves Ottway and a handful of refinery workers, most of whom are social outcasts, alone in the wilderness and prey to the elements. Things don’t get better. Help doesn’t arrive. There is no happy ending. All of these men will die.
The Grey could have been schlock (it was released in January, the Arctic movie wasteland where studios often drop their misbegotten children), and even though some moments are a little too overt with its themes (“We’re the animals!” one man screams while eating a wolf heart), the grim power of Carnahan and Takayanagi’s atmosphere lingers with us for an astonishing amount of time. The wolves, roaming the wilderness as indifferent but determined monsters of God, effectively function as reflections of not only our human condition, but of Nature’s indifference. It’s worth wondering if Ottway and the other survivors did die in the plane crash, and the merciless Arctic world is Hell. Animals simultaneously represent the most base and meaningless notions of the universe, while at the same time are something transcendent. In either case, the creature denotes something so precedent to humankind that our individual present-day existences are muted. The victims in The Grey concentrate on what was closest to them: children, wives, dreams, God, etc. But there’s no guaranteed zen calm in embracing the unknown. Like in Life of Pi, characters in The Grey long for permanence, to say I was, You are, and we are Together and so not alone. Wallets of the dead are collected, but even if salvaged by the few survivors, we know that those mementos may never recovered. The terror in The Grey, or the emotion in Life of Pi, is not in sweeping or sudden gestures, but in what outlines our lives. It’s in the silent air, the fog, the water. Something that cannot be negotiated with. A prayer, vegetarianism, a photograph, and a belief system are all acts of defiance to this silent antagonist.
The king of all Monster of God movies is without question Jaws, the deep sea, man-eating Leviathan being a great white shark that’s found a feeding nest in residential New England. The carnal horror of the story is effective enough (the first victim is quick to tell us “It hurts!” when she’s being eaten from below), but the primal kick of Steven Spielberg’s film comes from the famous monologue by Quint (Robert Shaw), written by John Milius, involving the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Without a distress signal, Quint tells us how thousands of men waited in the water, and then were slowly picked off by hungry ocean predators. The irony of the Man vs. Nature pot-boiler is how the Indianapolis was responsible for delivering the atomic bomb, a man-made device responsible for more flesh being sadistically ripped off human beings than any predator. Jaws, meanwhile, is a blockbuster weaved of anxieties wrought in the aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam, and while Amity used to mean Friendship, there’s now a darker resonance. Whether it’s the great white, Moby-Dick, Richard Parker, a storm, or a surrounding wolf pack, the Monster of God is always ourselves, a reminder of a blankness from whence we came and where we go, and the ornamental stories and myths we need to create in order to stay afloat in the dark.