I’ve been sitting here debating quite what to say about this extraordinary film. I mean, some things are a given- believe the hype about it looking spectacular, it is indeed astonishingly, breathtakingly beautiful, certainly, but beyond that…
Well, I even hesitate to say what I think it is really about. Is it a life-affirming story, a feel-good survival tale? Is it a grim tragedy, about the impermanence of Life, the finality of Death? Does it prove the existence of God, or does it rather disprove it in materialistic, cold and logical manner? Is it all of these things? Or is it, oddly, something else- is it all in the eyes of the beholder, not really about the story or the events that unfold but rather about us, what we put ‘into’ the film, what we take away from it? Do you see a soul in the eyes of the Bengal tiger, or just the reflection of your own humanity? Do you see anything at all?
Rarely do I watch a film that lingers in my head afterwards, my mind considering and reconsidering what I have seen, what I have felt, and why. Life of Pi lingers. It gnaws at you, it refuses to let go. I can only imagine how many debates this film has ignited. It reminds me a little of The Tree of Life. In a way, they don’t function like ‘traditional’ films, they are films of ideas. I need to see this film again. And then again. What in the world would Stanley Kubrick make of a film like this, I wonder?
So anyway, the story- Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was said to have been an unfilmable book. I have not read the book, so have no way of knowing how faithful the film is, but certainly when you watch the film you get the sense of a profound book that pictures things that could only exist in the reader’s head (well, until CGI technology got to where it is now).
It tells the story of Pi Patel, a Canadian immigrant who tells a fantastic story to a struggling author. He tells him about his childhood back in India, and his family. His parents oversee a zoo in French-Indian Pondicherry,and as Pi grows up under his materialistic father and his more spiritual mother, he becomes fascinated by the different forms of God, of the views and teachings of Islam, Hinduism, and Catholicism. When the family is forced to close the zoo and relocate to Canada, their Japanese freighter is caught in a terrifying storm and sinks. Only Pi survives, stranded in a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a tiger that Pi had already been fascinated by at the zoo, which bizarrely has the name Richard Parker. The brutal savagery of life and death is soon evident, and before long it’s just Richard and Pi lost in the vastness of the ocean, struggling against thirst and starvation and the weather, and indeed each other. This is not exactly a buddy movie- I had expected the tiger to become anthropomorphised, a comrade for Pi (indeed I thought the film posters made it look almost like a Disney movie) but he isn’t- he’s a tiger, a savage and terrifying predator, throughout. And the film certainly pulls no punches regards Pi’s ordeal.
I hesitate to go any further regards the story. Hopefully I have only related what is evident in the film’s own trailer. I feel the film is a journey of discovery and interpretation. I do not wish to ‘spoil’ any of it.
Technically the film is a marvel. I know I’m not averse to moaning about CGI but here it creates something akin to true art. Images that might grace a gallery. I’m oddly reluctant to watch the docs on the Blu-ray as I don’t really feel the need to know the secrets behind the ‘magic’. Its a far cry from the days of my youth when I used to avidly watch the ‘making-of’ docs on tv for the Star Wars films. I don’t need to know any more.
But the real revelation is that the film has ideas to match the visuals- for once here is a film with captivating questions, suggestions, ideas. What are we? Are we lost adrift in a mindless universe of chance, of chaos, or are we instead in the presence of the Divine? And in the face of the films final moments, which story do we believe, and what does that say about us?
Maybe it will leave you cold. I suppose no film works for everyone. But I feel I have seen something rather special, clearly one of the films of the year.