Director Ang Lee is not afraid of including religion in his imaginative tale and beautiful film The Life of Pi. Similar to his artistically framed and filmed Ice Storm and his provocative Brokeback Mountain, Lee once again weaves together a visual message that may offend but it will also enrich. Based on an award-winning novel by Canadian Yann Martel, the uniqueness of the setting matches the unique event of a young teen who is paired with a deadly Bengal tiger as they survive a mid-ocean shipwreck. Inspired by the short novel Max and the Cats by Moacyr Scliar in which a Jewish-German refugee crosses the Atlantic with a jaguar, there was some legal concern until Martel met with Scliar and demonstrated the unique difference of the final story. The novel was adapted for the screen by David Magee.
Due to the unfolding of the tale over several years, there are four actors in the title role. The primary role of the teenager Pi on the lifeboat is played by native New Delhi resident Suraj Sharma. Expressive and believable, it is Sharma who is traveling on a freighter with his family from India to Canada where they will sell the animals of their now defunct zoo. But when the ship sinks, Pi must spend scores of days on a raft as he attempts to share the resources and protection of the lifeboat in which a tiger has also sought refuge. This is the central focus of the tale.
The childhood years of Piscine Molitor Patel are played by Gautam Belur at the age of five and by Ayush Tandon at the age of twelve. It is Tandon who has to endure the taunting of his schoolmates as they ridicule his name by calling him “pissing” and so he sets out to change his name at school to Pi by memorizing the seemingly random list of numbers required to express the mathematical definition of Pi.
The adult Pi and the narrator of the tale is Irrfan Khan. Part of the magic of the tale is having the adult Pi describe this impossible journey as an adult who survived the harrowing experience. Rafe Spall appears as a young novelist who is listening to the tale and intends to write a novel based on Pi’s experience.
The spiritual message of the film interplays the three major religions of the world. Born into a family where his father Santosh (Adil Hussain) was a secularist and his mother Gita (Tabu) was a Hindu, Pi chose to follow his mother’s path. But when he was fourteen, he came across a Catholic priest who introduced him to the love of God’s son, Jesus. He soon chose to be baptized. Then he experienced the prayer practices of Islam and decided to follow all three religions. As an adult, he obviously recognizes the humor of such a confused decision when he explains to the young novelist who has come to write his tale that as a Catholic-Hindu he can “feel guilty before thousands of gods”. But it is obvious that the miracle of survival he experienced forever formed his faith that God was with him. His trust in God may not be focused, but it is a faith that cannot be denied.
The final chapter of the tale focuses on Pi’s interview with two Japanese insurance investigators who come to find out from him what happened to determine their liability. When he tells them about the tiger in the lifeboat and their journey, they do not believe him. So he tells them another version of what happened – a horrific version of a murderous cook and self-sacrifice by his mother and death of all but himself – and they are stunned. The message that life can be so unbelievably difficult and yet so incredibly beautiful is clear and made unforgettable by this artistic and thoughtful film.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
- Recognizing that faith provides a solid foundation for life, Yann Martel states: “To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.” What is the philosophy of life you have chosen and how is it assisting you in the journey of life?
- Martel also states: “If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?” Do you find it hard to believe in the deeper realities of love and faith? How do you deal with those deeper experiences of life?
- When discussing the differences in the religions, Martel writes: “Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat wearing Muslims.” Do you believe there are more similarities than differences in the believers of these three religions? Why do you answer as you do?
Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of the Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara. For more reviews: www.cinemainfocus.com.