Life of Pi
SPOILERS WITHIN Ang Lee’s latest film is beautifully directed (one of the few films I've seen - in 2D - where it’s instantly evident that it warrants the 3D experience) but ultimately flounders as a rather shallow meditation on the existence of God. Like an elaborate joke that builds to a weak punchline, Life of Pi is all build-up. When the gag comes the surprise is not so much one of deflation as it is bafflement that so many people apparently think the joke is such a good one, and further that they are able to find it funny for different reasons. There can be no doubt of the artistry of the delivery, however, and the visuals on display frequently evoke a sense of wonder that partially forgive its philosophical shortcomings.
Going in, even though I had not Yann Martel’s book (I was given a copy several years back, but it has remained indifferently on the bookshelf for all that time, perhaps eluding my interest by dint of being an “acclaimed bestseller”), I knew there was an aspect of the story involving an "unreliable narrator" so I braced myself. In the movie world, such constructs usually don't usually end well for me. There are rare exceptions; The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, buy its very nature, and both Fight Club and The Usual Suspects manage to make something greater than the sum of their parts from their twists. Life of Pi reminded me, to an extent, of Slumdog Millionaire; Slumdog’s narrator is not unreliable as such (although the holes in the script invite such a conclusion), but he introduces a contrived plot constructed to deliver a facile message (although that in itself is murky; Slumdog has been referred to as a fable, but if it is its message remains obscure). In Slumdog’s case the “fairytale” aspect was a reward for the hardship endured to get there, but buying into this requires a suspension of critical tools on the part of the audience; if you’re demanding of internal coherence from the plot you’re asking for the wrong thing because the film employs a classic get-out (it’s a “feel-good” movie); the effect on me, as a viewer, is to disengage from the story being told.
Life of Pi is more internally consistent, in that it adopts the mode of parable to tell its tale, but it is ultimately no less glib with its message. Although, the mode of parable only works in the context of the narrator’s comparison with the second version of events; the tale of the tiger on the boat is not a parable in and of itself (and it is unusual to have a parable featuring both the character and what he represents; Pi and the tiger are the same person). It uses the form so Spall’s narrator can point out who represents who in the actual account and Pi can then deliver the message. I have seen it referred to as a “parable about parables” which more approximates its form.
Lee’s film amounts to easily digestible fast food musing for the philosophically undernourished (I almost used the word spiritually, but my argument is not really about which side of the belief/faith fence the film comes down on). It’s pat and patronising, and easy to see why M Night Shyamalan ultimately decided not to go ahead and direct it (although he wrote an unused screenplay); the construction bears all the hallmarks of the empty twist structure that grew tiresome to audiences somewhere around the time The Village came out. Here, the conceit of a “story that will make you believe in God” is punctured early on by Irrfan Khan’s adult Pi (Khan, who is very good, incidentally also appeared in Slumdog Millionaire) when he tells Rafe Spall’s narrator (Spall’s not too irritating here, probably because he doesn’t get to say much) that he makes no such claims. Nevertheless, the theme has been positioned as central in the minds of the audience. Should we expect to see something wondrous and profound (which the visuals, and isolated setting reinforce once we reach the boat)? And, to be fair, Lee excels himself in translating the theme into film form (“Which story would do we prefer?”)
I was not expecting the film to dwell so long on Pi’s early life; the introductory passages represent far more than a bookend (which the second version of events most definitely is, despite its importance). I had been unaware that Jean Pierre-Jeunet was attached to the project until after seeing the film, but it was his quirky, heightened sensibility that came to mind during these sections (perhaps Lee was summoning his artistic spirit). Jeunet would certainly have done a better job of the opening titles, however, which were “cute” in all the wrong ways. The actors playing Pi at five and eleven years were both engaging. Suraj Sharma (teenage Pi) has come in for some criticism for his perceived shortcomings as an actor (he’s a first-timer), but while I have big problems with the film, he isn’t one of them. These opening sections repeatedly underline the atheistic sensibility of Pi’s father, who openly derides his son’s embrace of any religion that crosses his path. So it goes to inform what will presumably be a battle between rationality and faith over the next 90 minutes. Won’t it? Well, not really.
It’s interesting that, while more palatable version of Pi’s story forms the core of the film, the alternate take is truncated, related by Pi in his hospitable bed to two insurance investigators. I’m unable to comment on how much time this account was given in the book, but in the film it amounts to several minutes. Lee makes the choice not to employ flashbacks to expose this grisly content. I can quite see why; if it were shown at the backend of the film it would remain with viewer, overpowering the romantic version. But it feels like a cheat, a rigged deck. We are shown one, but don’t get to decide on the other. And, it may just be me playing Devil’s Advocate, but as far as “which story do you prefer?” I would prefer to see a telling of those events; how gory such scenes are is at the discretion of a sensitive director and it would have been possible to render them while keeping Life of Pi the right side of a horror film. Hitchcock’s Lifeboat included some fairly unpalatable elements (including a sailor with a broken leg that is amputated and various murders) in a similar confined setting.
I have to admit, I was more engaged by the apocryphal stories involving the name “Richard Parker” than anything I saw involving him in the film. But it’s curious that the film tackles the relationship between human and animal, and the conversation over animal consciousness (Pi is a vegetarian and refers to Richard Parker’s soul during his encounters), so diligently for such a period only to have it discarded when it is revealed that the human was the animal all along. So too, a seemingly resonant observation becomes less impactful when it’s immediate reference is revealed as insubstantial.
Pi: I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.
Martel apparently approves of the film version, while commenting that it is less ambiguous over which version is “real”. Presumably, therefore, he agrees with the film’s take on God; the story with the animals is the better story, “And so it goes with God”. There appear to be different inferences from this is stunning revelation (as profound statements go, isn’t it pretty trite really?) I took away from it an unmistakable (Richard) Dawkins position; it is easier to believe in God, because it is more comforting than the cold, harsh truth. Others appear to have read into the line that there is no difference “since it makes no factual difference and you can’t prove the question either way”. That seems like a stretch, at least as far as the film is concerned; the viewer is supposed to identify the horrific account as the actual one. So I’m not quite sure how one can walk away inferring the message as an affirmation of faith and belief in God. Yet there is clearly sufficient wiggle room for this, from the Lord President of America down (he referred to the book as “an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling”).
While this open debate is interesting, up to a point, it only reinforces that an idea the filmmakers would like to present as a profound realisation is actually little more than an empty shrug. It’s difficult to see the point as anything but a patronising one. To all-but the least inquiring mind, anyway.
It would be tempting to dismiss the entire film for the insubstantiality of its message but (again, not unlike Slumdog) it would be unfair to do so; to malign Lee’s achievement in sustaining a narrative (fake or otherwise) as well as he does (Hitchcock was at least aided by characters interacting with each other), or to dismiss the achievement in effects and cinematography. Life of Pi may be a long way off from profundity, but as a piece of filmmaking it is astonishingly accomplished (one thing is certain, if this doesn't take the Best Special Effects Oscar something is very skewy).