Sunday, March 10, 2013
Don't Feed The Gods
Tonight's film, Ang Lee's Life of Pi.
Based on a novel by Canadian author Yann Martel, Life of Pi recounts the life of an Indian boy, Pi Patel. Specifically, we are immersed in a seminal central event of Pi's teen years, an event which changes everything that follows for the character. We first meet Pi in the present day as a middle-aged man living in Montreal. He is approached by a writer who is looking for a story to write about, the writer having been steered by a mutual friend to Pi and his remarkable tale. After preliminaries, the two men sit down and Pi tells the long story.
This tale begins with a quick summary of the boy's life up to his 16th year. Pi's parents run a zoo in Puducherry in Southern India, and when Pi reaches his teen years the political situation in India becomes unstable. The parents decide to uproot and move the family to Canada to give Pi and his older brother a chance at a normal life. The zoo's animals are sold and the fees used to pay for the family's transport across the Pacific on a cargo ship. Many of the animals are transported on the same vessel.
But the ship encounters a terrible storm and sinks (whether because of the storm or not is never really determined), and the boy is the sole survivor. He ends up in a lifeboat with several escaped zoo animals. Soon enough it's just the boy and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. (Yes, not Sparky or Simba or Nails, but... Richard Parker. this is due to a paperwork mixup, we are told.) We know, of course, that Pi survives to tell us this story, but what follows the shipwreck is a magnetic and unexpected tapestry of visual spectacle and unbridled fantasy and mythology and tribulation.
Pi's motivation in reliving these events is to assist the writer in "finding god," despite Pi himself adhering to several religions with seemingly equal fervor. I suspect this element, which felt a bit non-sequitur to me, will resonate or not depending on the viewer's worldview. But from my view this element did not stand in the way of the story, and it provides some glue for the ending (which is not to say that it makes sense exactly).
I have not read the novel on which the film is based, but it sounds like an almost unimaginable candidate for making a film (like The English Patient, I would think), but once again Ang Lee shows an almost superhuman ability to translate a complicated mental image into a compelling filmic vision. The film's visuals wander from straightforward to whimsical to dreamscape, and we are bathed in a luxurious visual world throughout.
Most of the story is devoted to the stretch of days after the shipwreck, and these events are extraordinary enough to make one wonder how much of the preceding material was necessary. It helps us to get to know Pi, his family, and his relationships to them, but I suppose the goal is to tell the larger story of who the boy was and how that starting material and the events that unfold lead us to the man Pi is today. But the shipwreck and aftermath take up the bulk of the film, and the rest seems maybe a touch appended. Three or four actors play Pi over the various ages, but two actors get the most screen time. The present-day Pi (Irrfan Khan) and the 16-year-old Pi (Suraj Sharma) are both really fabulous, as are the actors playing the small roles of Pi's family. The Bengal tiger, who should be listed as a co-star, is pretty convincing, though at times the CG seems evident (but how else to tell a story like this?). It feels like Lee's ambition was not to find worthy actors or even the mastery of the CG tiger, but to bring such a visual treat to the screen at all. Highest marks for this.
There's a twist at the end that I won't give away, but one leaves the theater chewing on lots of stuff. It's a film that would benefit from repeated showings (like his Lust, Caution, another Ang Lee film I loved). The story is too "spiritual" for my tastes, but he keeps most gobbledygook at arm's length, and it's a real treat to watch. The group of us had much to discuss afterward. As a work of art it seems a rousing success. And for its improbability and the virtuoso display of storytelling it moves to my high spot for the year's Best Picture nominees.