Friday, November 23, 2012

Life of Pi (2012)

Right off the bat, this is perhaps the most visually stunning film of the year - of pretty much any year, in fact. I would expect no less from an Ang Lee film, and what I have seen of films that utilize Indian culture, they are some of the most vibrant, colorful experiences I have had seeing movies, period.

Life of Pi (2012)

I have never read the novel on which this film is based, so I can't comment on how good a translation the film is. But here's at least some of the story. A man named Pi Patel is basically telling his life story to a writer. He talks at first about his early childhood and the origin of his name (which is actually Piscine, but he eventually shortened it to "Pi" because he couldn't take any more "pissing" taunts from his schoolmates). He talks about his father, who was a zookeeper, and some harsh lessons he learned about the animals they took care of, especially a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (yes, really). He also explains how he became a follower of not only Hinduism, but also Christianity and Islam, finding happiness in the variety of inspiration that these three faiths gave him.

When Pi is a teenager, his father decides to give up the zoo and take his family and the animals overseas, where he will then sell the animals and hopefully be able to better provide for his family. After a storm demolishes the ship they are traveling on, Pi's entire family and most of the animals are lost to the sea, and Pi is left alone in a lifeboat with an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and Richard Parker. The use of 3D (and I cannot stress enough how much the 3D adds to the experience of this particular movie) has an unexpected effect here, as the claustrophobia of this situation is pretty intense. After a sequence of scenes that makes up some of the most horrifying few minutes of any film I've seen in recent memory, the passenger list on the lifeboat is whittled down to just Pi and Richard Parker. Most of the rest of the film deals with Pi trying to stay alive. As he says in a journal (part of the survival kit on the lifeboat), his fear of Richard Parker keeps him alert and having to keep him fed (so that the tiger won't eat him) gives him purpose.

I have seen several complaints about the framing device of this film, notably in the last ten minutes, which (in some viewers' eyes) undoes everything that came before by positing that none of it was real, that it was all some metaphor. I could not possibly see this more differently. Pi is telling his story to a couple of officials from the Japanese Ministry of Transport who are trying to piece together what happened when the ship went down. They don't believe his story about the animals, so he tells them another one - essentially the same story (at least the first part of the lifeboat adventure), but with all humans - and instead of being an uplifting story of survival, it's a harrowing story of harsh conditions and lost innocence. What I took from it is that Pi's original version is absolutely true. But he tells the second story because he thinks the two men are more likely to believe it. This seems to be a case of the viewer getting from it what they bring to it, which I think is a mark of real art, not a failure in storytelling.

The way the story presents Pi's loss of his family, and eventually the loss of Richard Parker, was poignant in a way that really pushed my particular buttons. In particular, Pi parting ways with Richard Parker was the most poignant for me, because it reminded me so much of how I'm affected when people drift out of my life, whether by death or (more frequently) circumstance. We're all alone, on our own journey, and though we may have company from time to time, people drift in and out of our stories constantly, because they're in stories of their own.

If you've seen the trailer, you know you're in for a visual treat. Strangely, I think the trailer actually gives away *most* of the money shots from the visual effects, but there's still a lot to feast on. As far as cast goes, we spend most of our time with one human actor, Suraj Sharma, who plays the teenage Pi. This was his film debut, and while I wouldn't say he blew me away, I was impressed in that, for a first-time film actor, it could have gone wrong in so many ways and never did. The other standout is Irrfah Khan, who plays Pi as an adult.

This is a wonderful movie, and one which kind of demands to be seen on a big screen (preferably in 3D). I can't imagine what this movie will be like in a home video format, but if this movie joins my collection, I'm thankful I have a big screen to play it on.