The post contains spoilers for the film Life of Pi. Reader discretion is advised.
Life of Pi (2012) is the story of an Indian boy who, after being shipwrecked at sea, survives on a lifeboat for 227 days with a full-grown Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Based on a novel written by Canadian author Yann Martel, Life of Pi passed through the hands of many directors before Ang Lee (dir. Brokeback Mountain) took the reins and finally set out to create what others viewed as too risky — a film that combines what are often seen as six of the hardest challenges faced by inexperienced and veteran filmmakers alike.
The exceptional thing about Life of Pi is not merely that Ang Lee managed to overcome these obstacles, however, but that he used these seeming disadvantages to better convey the overarching themes of Yann Martel’s original work. This marriage of practical cinematography with thematic, philosophical inquiry sets Life of Pi above many other films that attempt to overcome the same limitations.
Certain large-budget films are often seen as risky if they contain too many variant features. By all accounts, Life of Pi had to overcome not only one, but several of these difficulties.
First, Life of Pi was filmed in 3D, which remains to this day a difficult technology to grasp as it adds an entirely new dimension to a director’s vision.
Second, the movie had significant portions shot over water, which is always a difficult challenge for actors and crew.
Third and fourth, the main character of Pi Patel was not only a young boy — working well with child actors is a skill unique to only a few directors — but Suraj Sharma, who was chosen for the role, had never had any acting experience up to that point in his life.
Fifth, because of the nature of the story, Life of Pi required extensive use of both real and CGI animals.
And finally, challenge number six: Life of Pi was from the very beginning a deeply philosophical story about the true nature of the metaphysical, something that movies of this size and prominence tend to shy away from as the topic is often divisive. Despite these challenges, Life of Pi managed to win four Oscars at the Academy Awards in February 2013, the most of any film nominated that year.
Life of Pi carefully compares the importance of religious versus scientific truth by way of the strengths inherent in fiction versus nonfiction narrative. The film eventually comes to the conclusion that neither can outweigh the other, making “truth” a subjective quality. This is portrayed not merely through the writing of the story, but also through the way that Ang Lee chose to visually convey it. In this way, where the narrative of the story and its visuals are perfectly in tandem, we see that the very core of duality present in the film is also a core tenant of the nature of the production itself.
For example, the major reveal at the end of Life of Pi explains that Pi’s adventures following the sinking of the Tsimtsum cargo ship might not have actually happened in the way previously shown on screen. Instead of braving months at sea sharing a lifeboat with the Bengal tiger Richard Parker, Pi told a second story in which he and three other survivors resorted to cannibalism, with only Pi surviving the carnage. We see the first tale, but only hear Pi tell the other.
This second narrative represents nonfiction/scientific truth while the first represents fiction/religious truth. Yann Martel and Ang Lee wanted to convey the message that both reveal substantial truths in different forms, one being factual in nature and the other psychological.
Time Magazine named Life of Pi “a visual miracle,” with critics granting widespread acclaim for its excellent use of color and lighting. But to say that Life of Pi managed to connect with its audience based solely on the merit of its visuals alone is to completely disregard what was so special about the Man Booker Prize-winning novel in the first place. Life of Pi tackles the difficult themes of faith and morality in such a unique way.
When we are first introduced to the character of Pi, we are told that he has a story that will “make us believe in God.” This one statement captures our attention from the very beginning — you want to see if this story really can make you believe.
Throughout the novel and film, certain parallels are drawn between faith and everyday objects and ideas, such as the zoo that was owned by Pi’s father. How is following a religious doctrine a bit like being an animal living in a zoo? Yann Martel says in the book that “certain illusions about freedom plague them both.” Also, what is the significance of a name, and how does it correspond to a being’s identity? The tiger is named Richard Parker only through a clerical error, representing a sort of fatalism or destiny. Pi’s own name, bearing the significance of the never-ending mathematical figure, represents how we can discover rational beliefs (science) through irrational thought (religion).
But what Yann Martel and Ang Lee ultimately get at here is the nature of truth itself — a daunting feat. Martel once said: “Fiction and nonfiction are not so easily divided. Fiction may not be real, but it’s true; it goes beyond the garland of facts to get to emotional and psychological truths.” Maybe religion, much like the twist ending of the story, is similar for many people.
In the end, Life of Pi succeeds not only upon the strength of its visual style, but more so in the way that these visuals connect to the story. Not only are we influenced by what Ang Lee chose to show us directly, but the viewer also takes something from what he chose not to show.
What does it mean, exactly, that Pi’s second story of cannibalism at sea is never shown to the audience, while the first tale, the one of zoo animals in a lifeboat, demands our attention for over half of the film’s overall running time? The message here is the role that traditions play in our lives. Fictional stories may not hold factual truth, but they seek to convey something much deeper. Just like Pi’s second story, nonfiction misses much of the subtleties that truly define what it means to live, despite being more “true” in the objective sense.
As Pi voyages across the sea, so too do we find ourselves on a similar journey in our own lives. Just because no one else can see the tiger there with you all the while, it doesn’t make the ferocious beast any less real.
Does that make you believe in God? ■