Ang Lee’s Life of Pi

Spoiler alert!

The first thing I said to anyone who asked me what I thought of Life of Pi was that it became my favorite movie as of less than ten minutes into the opening.

The film had me wide-eyed and riveted from the start, and kept me that way for the entire duration.  My popcorn was left abandoned on the floor, and I fought my human needs during the entire second half of the film because no excuse (no matter how much my bladder argued to the contrary) was good enough to get me out of my seat.

The theatre was mostly silent except for the occasional sighs when the tiger was onscreen and the gasps of amazement during some of the film’s most incredible visual moments.  Yann Martel’s character is endearing from the beginning.  He reminds us of moments in our own childhood days when we also dared to question every aspect of life. His interest in religion echoes the entire human species’ search for truth and for understanding.

But Piscine doesn’t seem to be searching for truth at first – he wants to understand why people have faith in their religions.  And once he understands, he becomes enticed by this faith, and thereby becomes a Christian and a Muslim in addition to being a Hindu.

As someone who has grown up surrounded by different faiths – my Mother’s family was originally Christian, and my father’s Muslim, I remember very clearly the time in my childhood when I questioned my parent’s lack of faith.  At this time I became curious about what it is that made others believe in a higher power, and why I didn’t seem to be able to believe as they did.

Nevertheless, there was a time when I attempted to pray every evening.  Mostly I prayed for new toys and such superficial desires (naturally, as no one had taught me to pray for the “right” things).  But I distinctly remember that every time I prayed I added the one thing I feared most – I asked that my parents never divorce, and never die.

In retrospect my prayers were still selfish and revolved only around my own desires, but at the time those were the things that felt important to me. Like Pi’s Mother, mine seemed amused by my desire to find a religion. Looking back I realize it wasn’t so much a belief in a God that I was searching for, but rather the sense of comfort that someone was making sure that I was safe. It seems to me that Pi is also searching for a sense of safety and comfort, rather than for an absolute truth.

Life of Pi is replacing a long-standing favorite of mine in my personal ranks of films: Ti Burton’s Big Fish.  I realize that the two films have very similar themes – perhaps the primary one being that truth is not always the best story, nor the one we want or need to believe in.

It is only human to search for deeper explanations – we want to feel more connected to others, to the world, and to the things we do not understand.  Science certainly provides for a vast understanding of how things function, but when I think scientifically the only connection I feel is that my molecular composition is slightly different than that of the air I breathe and that of the ground I walk on.

Big Fish is about a cynical young man coming to terms with the impending death of his father, a man who is notorious for telling wild stories in the place of truths.  This film really puts into perspective the idea of the kinds of choices we can make in life revolving around how we communicate and interpret our stories.  Why is more importance always given to objective truth rather than subjective interpretation?  Life of Pi re-iterates the same questions – and takes them to a further level, one revolving not only around how we communicate with others, but also around how we come to terms with our own choices and experiences.

The question of a human desire for faith is very relevant to Pi’s story.  Religion is universally grounded in storytelling traditions.  These stories can be interpreted as “truths” or they can be viewed as tales to inspire and aid us in finding meaning in life.  From this perspective, Pi didn’t have to choose one religion, because he recognized that they were all based on stories which he deemed valid.  And his faith became something that stretched well beyond the boundaries of religion because it was anchored in the idea that truth isn’t always as it seems.

At the end of the film when Pi is telling the “true” version of the story we begin to question whether his adventure with Richard Parker was all made up, as an alternative to the horrible events that he recounts to the men from the company who owned the ship that sank, taking his family and the animals from their zoo to the bottom of the ocean.  But I quickly realized that I didn’t want to know which version was true. I was just as happy to imagine that Pi and Richard Parker were on the boat together, rather than picturing Pi surviving on his own.

When the credits came up my friend and I discussed whether or not the ending – when Pi’s wife and kids arrive – was useful to the film. I understand the desire for the audience to be reassured that the character moved on and was happy again, but I feel that it would have been fine without it. Personally I would have preferred to be left with his last words being when he asks the writer which version of the story he preferred.  Although it did form a nice transition into “reality” both for Yann’s character (the writer) and for the viewers.

I will conclude with the truth – I could go on writing for a very long time about this film. But I will instead stop here, with the idea that I will never truthfully be able to capture the feeling of sitting in the theater and experiencing Life of Pi for the first time.

richardparker

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