Adapting Life of Pi seems like a fool’s errand. Written by philosopher-novelist Yan Martel, the 2001 bestseller follows a shipwrecked Indian boy as he drifts across the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with a fully-grown Bengal tiger for company. That minimalist plot alone is an obstacle that only the boldest or most masochistic of directors would undertake. Secondly, the novel is less a story-driven narrative than a philosophical treatise, a meditative exploration of faith and survival (akin to Noah, Jonah, or Job) with the sweep and moral overtones of a biblical parable. But under the gentle guidance of Taiwanese director Ang Lee, Life of Pie comes to the screen as a thoughtful, magical-realist vision quest; its symbolism and significance are preserved and rendered lyrical, cinematic.
In preamble, we’re introduced to the titular castaway, Piscine “Pi” Patel (Suraj Sharma), a denizen of Pondicherry, the French-colonial quarter of India. Quizzical and clever, he develops his mathematical moniker to avoid schoolyard embarrassment (Piscine sounds too much like pissing to his callous classmates). Traipsing about the family zoo, Pi is fascinated by the various animals, specifically the aforementioned feline, Richard Parker. Though born and raised Hindu, Pi adopts the tenets and rituals of Christianity and Islam, too, naïve or indifferent to the inherent paradoxes. His father myopically bemoans what he considers blind worship. Shot with a 64-color crayon-box visual palette, the initial prologue is a charming vignette, where Pi’s resourcefulness, piety, and fortitude are setup to be tested.
When he’s sixteen, the family hops a freighter to Canada (their animals in tow). Mid-route, a massive squall capsizes the ship, leaving Pi stranded on a life raft with the carnivorous Richard Parker. Like Cast Away or 127 Hours, the film is a personal saga of survival. Pi’s livelihood depends entirely on his ability to catch fish and rainwater, avoid exposure, and maintain sanity. Through Lee’s painterly images, we’re enveloped by the ocean’s impressive vastness; we experience its difficult navigability, and we empathize with Pi’s insignificance opposite its scope and grandeur. The presence of Richard Parker is a risible disadvantage, but Pi finds that his fear of and responsibility to the hungry beast have unexpected benefits. It’s riveting to watch how his unyielding positivity allows him to negotiate a seemingly impossible situation.
Pi feels an ineffable connection to Richard Parker. His father warns that peering into a tiger’s eyes is actually a self-reflection, a telescope to view one’s own essence. Richard Parker is, metaphorically, an extension of Pi, symbolic of the intrinsic brutality that, on the raft, Pi struggles to isolate as an external manifestation. Illustrated by Lee’s majestic cinematography and visual effects, the ocean connotes a kind of reflecting pool; its glassy surface is an enormous mirror off which the sky’s crimson emissions can bounce to and fro. In a surrealist sequence, Pi, starving and delirious, stares into the moonlit water. In his point-of-view, we swim in a hallucinatory trance only to reemerge from behind his eyes. The sea’s physical depth provides a metaphysical glance into the protagonist’s own spiritual makeup.
The journey is framed by a conversation between Pi (Irfan Khan), now an older man, and an author (Rafe Spall) looking to novelize his experience. The flashbacks that form the central storyline cannot to be taken as the exact series of events. Not only is Pi narrating through the haze of memory and time; he can only comprehend his adventure subjectively, by the ways it shaped and defined him. Pi then tells a completely different version of the ordeal, a far more plausible and far less enchanting one. Since neither narrative can be proven or disproven, the viewer is encouraged to decide for themselves which they believe to be true. Through this device, Life of Pi impresses the importance of storytelling in our lives. As in Tim O’Brien’s seminal Vietnam chronicle, The Things They Carried, Lee’s film asserts that sometimes logic must be forfeited for the sake of higher understanding. In his philosophical allegory, Martel proved that storytelling, like faith, can be a valuable tool to providing an enlightened perspective on the world and our place in it.
Lee is a skillful storyteller himself: He directs non-actor Suraj Sharma to an ingenuous performance, notably in a climactic teary-eyed monologue. The use of CGI and 3-D accentuate the film’s aesthetic splendor (like National Geographic videos doodled-on by Salvador Dali), spinning the environment—the sea and the stars—into one sensuously bewitching tableaux of universal inter-connectedness. Similar to this year’s The Sessions or 2008’s Hunger, the movie considers both spiritual strength and corporeal fragility. It uniquely suggests, though, in a touch of the Rastafarian, that Pi’s physical resilience and spiritual transcendence have a symbiotic relationship, that one helps invigorate the other. As trite as it may sound, Life of Pi is truly a testament to the endurance of the body and soul.