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.
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.
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.
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