Dear Life of Pi,
When feasting my eyes on you from your lush and luminous opening credits, I instantly sigh and realize that this is potentially something special! Coming to you mostly ignorant by way of a few close friends and their reverence for the book, I hoped this difficult adaption can make the trip to the big screen unscathed.
When we meet Pi and his family, who run the business side of a zoo in India, we learn that he was born Piscine Molitor Pate, named after a famous French swimming pool, a monicker chosen with help from an eccentric swimmer uncle and adoring parents. As he grows into a bright and inquisitive child, his sponge-like spirituality walks equally the paths of Hinduism, Christianity and the Islam. He continues to grow and comes to be an insightful young man when he finds out the family is moving to Canada. Thus, he must grow-up a little more and bid his former life and his girlfriend adieu.
On the ship over, there is an encounter in the mess hall that seems superfluous at the time but plays a key part in the end. Soon after, when rising in the night with the exuberance of his teen years to watch the boat get caught up in a nasty storm, the alarm starts blaring as Pi cavorts topside experiencing the insanity. While the ship quickly gets into trouble and begins to founder, Pi is tossed into a lifeboat by the crew and is soon adrift in twenty foot seas and our strange survival milieu begins.
When calmer seas and the light of day expose us to the lifeboat menagerie, it is a lame zebra, and a hyena that are soon joined by an orangutan and of course the hidden Bengal tiger. As natural selection delivers the zebra and orangutan to the Hyena as food sources and I suspect the tiger too, Pi realizes he needs to build himself a raft to put some distance between the animals and himself if he doesn’t want to end up as lunch. It is somewhere in this portion of the story that I realize that I am watching a cinematographer’s masterpiece, with scene blocking and visual flow and splendor to equal all the greats put to celluloid! This film is that gorgeous and the special effects work on the tiger Richard Parker so pristine and transparent that his entire big cat presence is never unreal at anytime in the movie. It reminded me of the breath taking work in Peter Jacksons King Kong!
As this extremely intimate yet epic tale continues, Pi starts to demonstrate his intelligence, ingenuity and courage. He ‘makes do in an astounding range of ways that are riveting and perfectly portrayed. Suraj Sharma is the phenomenal actor delivering a tour de force in his debut role, and thus breathes life into the film that underscores Ang Lee’s brilliance and vision for the project.
As the days pass and the straits get more dire for Pi and the tiger Richard Parker, Pi constantly formulates ways to keep them both alive while at same time striking some sort of ‘trained’ truce between them. It tests his faith and teaches him more about himself, life and faith than he would have ever imagined.
For you see, that’s what this movie is all about … life and faith. It shows its purest nature in the flashback story telling done by the Adult Pi played by the understated Irrfan Khan, who nonetheless brings undeniable emotion and power to the screen in his turn. It’s a natural dichotomy of the Adult Pi’s humble certitude and the complete fantastical nature of the experience otherwise painted on the screen. What the back and forth from story to present time also offers is the oh-so-critical grounding that makes the ending to his tale powerful yet poignant.
Poignant for me for sure and yet anticlimactic for some it seems. Because, without ruining it, after 227 days, Pi and Richard make it to land and there is heart break and rescue, yet more than that occurs when Pi is grilled by insurance investigators. Though, as the adult Pi closes this story and reaches through the screen to break my heart along with his, and while doing so, eventually asks me as a viewer if I have faith in his experience, I find I do. But that’s not the most important part. The most important part is what Richard Parkers reminds me in this experience, life goes on – life always goes on – and so, you live it … with no looking back. And that is perhaps as it should be.
Life of Pi, you are one of those rare cinematic jewels that I hold ever closer to my bosom. You are an imperfect masterpiece of a film painted in all possible visual glory, while capturing a perfect moment of humanity and wonder that can not be denied. You are that good! Take a bow cinematographer Claudio Miranda your legend is now secure.
And I now can smile at a little restored faith in the story telling medium of film that I love so much.
Thank you Pi