Category: Religious and Spiritual Dramas


LifeOfPi1

I’ve been putting off writing this review for a couple of reasons. One, I’ve been replaying Persona 3: FES, and those games are time vacuums and exceptionally addicting. The other, more important, reason is that I loved Life of Pi so much that I felt like I needed a good 24 hours of contemplation of the film before I could approach it with a fair and balanced eye. Because, Life of Pi is a technical masterpiece. It joins Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life as being one of the best looking films not just of the 2010s but of all time. It is as deeply spiritual a cinematic experience as I’ve had in ages, and there almost isn’t a wasted frame in the entire film. Life of Pi may very well be the best film of Ang Lee‘s storied career. But, despite my rapturous enjoyment of the film, what the film (and more explicitly, the book) has to say about actual religion and agnosticism is sort of silly and juvenile and distracts from an otherwise soaring fantasy coming-of-age film.

And that last sentence may cause confusion for some as I referred to the film as being deeply spiritual yet I mock the actual religious content of the film/book. When I refer to a film as being spiritual (whether that’s The Tree of Life or Synecdoche, New York), I mean that it has something substantive to say about our place in the universe, our relationship with nature, our own pending mortality. Spiritual films (I consider The Road to be one as well) wrack me emotionally by the end not because of sad or melodramatic content but they force me to look universal truths square in the eye and they change my worldview forever when the movie is over. Life of Pi scales that summit and although its own explicitly religious aspirations (which are laid out far more directly in the novel) are shallow and vapid, it doesn’t significantly mar the deep emotional connection I formed with Ang Lee’s masterful film.

LifeOfPi2

Based off of the critically acclaimed novel by Yann Martell, Life of Pi is a tender coming-of-age tale wrapped in a classic “shipwrecked” fantasy-adventure. Framed (convincingly enough at first that I had to pause the film to see if it was a true story) as adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) recounts his life story to an aspiring novelist (Rafe Spall). Young Pi (Suraj Sharma) grew up in French India where his parents ran a zoo. An especially bright and curious boy, Pi was interested in religion and spirituality from a young age and became a member of not one, not two, but three different religions as a child. He was simultaneously a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Christian, and saw no reason why that was contradictory. Pi was full of wonder, and there was nothing in the universe that seemed beyond his appreciation, including the dangerous Bengal tiger living in the zoo, Richard Parker.

However, Pi’s family decides to sell the zoo for fear that the family business is going under and that it would be in the family’s best interest to move to French Canada so that Pi and his siblings can have a better life. However, things don’t go according to plan. With all of the animals on board like Noah’s proverbial arc (the religious symbolism there just now dawning on me), the family’s freighter to Canada is sunk by a storm and Pi is the only human survivor. His only company on his life boat is an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and the tiger Richard Parker. And it’s not long before it’s just Pi and Richard Parker. And the rest of the film chronicles the day-to-day survival that Pi must endure if he hopes to make it to land when he’s stuck on a boat with a hungry and vicious carnivore. Pair it with the most impressive visuals this side of Avatar, and you have an idea what to expect with Life of Pi.

LifeOfPi3

Although, bringing up Avatar may give the false impression that Life of Pi is all style and no substance which it assuredly isn’t. As anyone who has seen Brokeback Mountain can attest, Ang Lee knows how to leverage visual beauty (this time mostly computer generated rather than stunning natural scenery) as a way to complement the thematic content of his pictures. In Brokeback Mountain, the stoic, eternal beauty of the Montana hillsides became a metaphor for the secret escape and primal passions of Jack and Ennis. In Life of Pi, the often surreal dreamscape of the ocean (because fantasy and reality are two sides of the same coin in Life of Pi) and Pi’s utter visual isolation constantly remind the viewer of the film’s themes of a man in a total state of nature and the moral costs we must endure in order to survive when removed from society

Still, even if there wasn’t a contextual reason for the film’s overwhelming beauty, there would still be enough moments of exultant visual pleasure in Life of Pi to make it one of the most important films of the years, and I could fill up an entire review just talking about individual sequences that bowled me over with their raw beauty. There’s a scene about halfway through the film where Pi and Richard Parker (whose name I can no longer say in anything other than an Indian accent) are in the boat at night and beneath them is a bio-luminescent visual feast of jellyfish and algae that is interrupted by the arrival of a surfacing whale. It’s stunning, and there’s another moment, much later in the film, where a starving Pi peers into the ocean and hallucinates a visual phantasmagoria that rivals the “birth of the universe” scene of The Tree of Life.

LifeOfPi4

He was up against some exceptionally stiff competition this year, so I can’t complain too much about Suraj Sharma not getting an Academy Award nomination (when you’re up against Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington, and Joaquin Phoenix, it’s understandable if you’re passed by). However, for a total newcomer to Hollywood, Suraj Sharma should make an immediate name for himself. He carried this film on his shoulders, because no matter how beautiful it was, if I didn’t care about the boy, it wouldn’t amount to anything. And Suraj made me believe that he was on a boat in the middle of the ocean with a tiger even though he was simply acting against a green screen for most of the film. That takes talent, and I really hope that he makes a career for himself. He is a young talent to watch.

I’m going to draw this review to a close because I’m taking my sister back to Philippi tonight. We both finished our finals today, and we’re going to likely spend most of our summer at home (rather than in Morgantown). She’ll be there because she doesn’t have a place in Morgantown, and I’ll be there because I work in Clarksburg although I still plan on making some trips to Morgantown whenever I need to get away from my family (which may or may not be often. we’ll see). But, I need to pack a little. Anyways, the point of this review is that Life of Pi is far and away the best of the Best Picture nominees that I’ve seen so far. Argo isn’t in the same league of film-making as this masterpiece, and if you have even a passing interest in great movies, you owe it to yourself to watch this excellent picture.

Final Score: A

 

Advertisements

When one is very young, we are indoctrinated by our education system into viewing the founders and explorers and discoverers of this nation as these heroic and mythic figures and the native peoples as savages and heathens. It doesn’t take very long though for us to realize that, in fact, the first Europeans to populate and mark their claim in North America were all sort of ass-hole imperialists and that the Native Americans had their own beautiful cultures and societies that we raped and destroyed. So, when I saw that the next film on my list was a movie about a French Jesuit’s attempts to spread Christianity to the Huron’s, I was mentally preparing myself to become severely pissed off throughout the entire film cause I was expecting some condescending bit of pro-Christianity ridiculousness. Fortunately, the film, Black Robe, gave me a gritty and realistic look at one man’s sincerity of faith in a world where he is guaranteed to fail.

Like I said, the movie is about one man’s attempt to spread Christianity to the Huron people in the northern parts of what is now Canada. He has been chosen by his superiors in the church to be part of a special mission that will go deeper and deeper into Huron territory. It’s dangerous, and the natives leading him don’t particularly care for him. And with good reason, despite the sincerity of his beliefs, he is unable to accept the fact that he is forcing his views and beliefs down the throats of people who already have their own religions and codes. The only other frenchmen to go with him even discusses how their society is ultimately more Christian than our own, except certain aspects of “Christianity” or incompatible with their long-established way of life. So, through the film, you see the full gamut of the native experience and how brutal and nasty it can be. From starving in the winter to the sickness to other tribes that want to kill you and torture you, it wasn’t a particularly pleasant way to live. The film makes the wise decision not to romanticize native life but simply to contrast it with the high-brow condescension of the French.

I’m going to call this film the anti-Dances with Wolves which both romanticized native culture and at the same time was like “the white man is bad. but the white man is also what’s going to save these natives.” It was ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong. I liked Dances with Wolves but its message is contradictory and silly. In this film, the natives aren’t “noble savages” but they  aren’t portrayed as villains either (with one tribe being a major exception). At the same time, the white people aren’t necessarily villains either. But they don’t do anyone any good at the same time. This film is perhaps one of the most realistic portrayals of this sort of time period that I can think of. I respect it’s decision to play it from a neutral stand point.

The film was beautifully shot on location, and much like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, the sense of time and place is fantastic. The scenery in the film is breathtakingly beautiful. I want to go on vacation in northern Canada now. The only thing that is keeping this film from moving up one spot higher in the score its going to receive was the terrible decision to dub English voice acting over the French actors dialogue. They had the Algonquin and Huron languages in their native tongues but thought we couldn’t handle reading French subtitles. I hate dubbing and this really bothered me. Everyone who enjoys historical films should check this out. Just don’t expect some revisionist fantasy or romantic adventure. This film requires you to think and exam the subject material. But you are ultimately rewarded with a great film.

Final Score: A-