(by Dustin Putman
"I have a story that will make you believe in God," Pi (Irrfan Khan) tells an author (Rafe Spall) who has come to do research on his life for a book he plans to write. Indeed, Pi has been through some truly unique situations, more than enough to make for a pretty fascinating read—and film. Based on the best-selling novel by Yann Martel and adapted for the screen by director Ang Lee (2009's "Taking Woodstock") and screenwriter David Magee (2008's "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day"), "Life of Pi" is one of the year's most gripping dramas, a visual wonderstruck with an emotional chord that reverberates far beyond the awesome imagery. Lee covers a lot of big themes—about the fragility of life; one's fight-or-flight quest for survival; the disparate natures of man and beast; the mysteries of the universe—and does so with a hand both tough and ambiguous, his tone not one of preachiness but of an open mind. If Pi doesn't quite make an air-tight case for God, he does convince that there must be something bigger than all of us out there beyond the cosmos. Article continues below
Named after the French swimming pool where his parents (Adil Hussain and Tabu) first met, Piscine Molitor Patel (Gautam Belur as a child, Saraj Sharma as a teen) grew up on the property of his family's exotic zoo in Pondicherry, India. A naturally curious boy taken by the many different religions he learned about—he describes himself as a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Christian—Piscine, or "Pi" for short, was urged by his father to think rationally and hold science with the same value he does his faith. Shortly after a high school-aged Pi meets the girl who may very well be his soul mate (Shravanthi Sainath), he learns that his family must sell their zoo and relocate their animals to Canada. Aboard a Japanese cargo ship sailing across the Pacific on a stormswept night, Pi is woken by a noise and journeys to the ship's deck just as it begins to sink. The rest of the passengers—including his mother, father, and elder brother Ravi (Vibish Sivakumar)—drown, but Pi narrowly escapes in a lifeboat he shares with, first, a zebra, and later a hyena, an orangutan, and a savage Bengal tiger. Few of them ultimately last long placed in such close quarters, and pretty soon it is just Pi and the tiger, named Richard Parker, who must find a way to coexist if either one of them hopes to survive.
"Life of Pi" was shot in native 3D and is being released theatrically in the same format. Like Martin Scorsese's use of an additional dimension in 2011's "Hugo," director Ang Lee understands that it should not be treated as a gimmick, but as an invitation to expand and explore the frame's spatiality and depth. Most 3D is more hindrance than anything, a dopey, brightness- and color-dulling annoyance, but "Life of Pi" appears to have been shot with this in mind, the lightness of the image compensating enough so that when the glasses are on, it never looks noticeably washed-out, dreary, or dark. Even without 3D, however, "Life of Pi" is destined to astound audiences who presumptuously believe they've seen it all. Every shot is ready, as is, to be framed and hung on a wall, and yet this is no stodgy museum piece. Whereas in some films the beauty strips the narrative of its human emotion, this is one that is only emboldened by its far-out sights, breathing newfound life into scenes that might not have had nearly the impact without technical masters such as Ang Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda (2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") at the helm.
The opening act, slow and sure and intoxicating, is crucial in the way that it develops Pi, the dynamics with his family, his distant relationship with the wild animals populating his father's zoo, and his growing affections for a classmate. By the time he is clinging to the outside railing of the cargo ship, torrential rains and wind barreling down on him as the structure begins to give way, the viewer is wholly on his side and understands the full weight of what he stands to lose. As animals desperately jump overboard and Pi is pushed into a lifeboat, he is already aware of his parents' and brother's harsh fates. Pushed underwater by a crashing wave, Pi floats there for a moment in eerie solitude, the kaleidoscope of living creatures, sea and otherwise, around him standing at sobering contrast with the corpse of the ship sitting silently at the bottom of the ocean. From start to finish, it is a set-piece that is shorter but no less authentically terrifying than the one in 1997's "Titanic," the special effects work from Rhythm & Hues seamlessly bringing the awe-inspiring power of nature to portentous fruition against the fallibility of life itself.
The remainder of the picture is a survival tale in the classic mold—with a few twists—as well as an increasing fever dream told from the point-of-view of a young man who may or may not be losing his grip on reality the longer he is lost at sea. A menagerie of animals not fit to be around one another are at first his companions until they systematically fall victim to the ravages of each other's feral instincts. Eventually, as previously mentioned, it is just Pi and Richard Parker, an unforgiving Bengal tiger who, through the wonders of some of the most startlingly photorealistic CGI ever to be glimpsed on film, never appears to be anything but a legitimate, living and breathing feline. The key to this section of the film, which is as devastatingly humane as it is rapturously tense, is in the relationship between these two unlikely companions. A lesser, more idealized film would find them becoming friends. This one knows that will never happen. Instead, their relationship becomes more complex, one that finds the tiger relying on Pi in dire situations and Pi thankful to not be completely alone. Though Richard Parker would not hesitate to tear his teeth into Pi's flesh if he had the chance—Pi often hangs on the bow of the lifeboat, just out of reach—there is an understanding between the two, a vulnerability that neither is immune to. "He was just as inexperienced as I," Pi says in the present day.
Irrfan Khan (2012's "The Amazing Spider-Man") and Rafe Spall (2012's "Prometheus") do capable, effective work in the wraparound scenes as the adult Piscine and the writer doing research into his life, but it is Saraj Sharma, a newcomer with nary a credit to his name, who carries the film, often the only human actor on screen. Like Tom Hanks' arguably career-best work in 2000's "Cast Away," Sharma is riveting to watch even in total isolation, the camera holding on him and his ordeal while the viewer grows more and more sympathetic to his plight. Sharma does not act, but has the gift of becoming the character he's playing, his grief over the loss of his family, the fear he experiences when hope no longer seems viable, and his very shame in killing a fish he catches, the life in its eyes fading away, enough to bring tears to one's eyes. Meanwhile, a swarm of jellyfish, a run-in with a giant whale, and an unlikely battle with a school of flying fish passing through are just a few iridescent highlights of Pi's journey, wordlessly signifying to him that he mustn't give up.
The final twenty or thirty minutes of "Life of Pi" are open to various interpretations. Pi's stop on a carnivorous floating island populated by thousands of meercats is mysterious and lovely and just out-there enough to be total fiction, despite his claims to the contrary. Later, there is the suggestion that the story Pi has just told is a twisting of the truth, the animals shipwrecked with him actually stand-ins for family and surly crew members who met terrible ends. All involved agree that the version with the animals is better, and the movie might have been better itself to have cut this overlong late scene, which brings little of worth to what has already been seen. After all that Pi goes through, his faith only comes out the other side stronger, his belief that animals have souls something he stands firm to in spite of a powerful scene where Pi's farewell to Richard Parker isn't reciprocated. It's a sorrowful moment, but also a gorgeous one, encapsulating the notion that yes, the world surely is a curious, enigmatic place.