Life of Pi
- Running time
- 127 min
- Ang Lee
- Screen writer
- David Magee
- OFLC rating
General (127 minutes)
YANN Martel's Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi can be recommended as a thrilling, yet educational young-adult adventure story, packing in plenty of lurid detail - there is, for instance, a fight between a tiger and a shark - in between the lessons in natural history and comparative religion.
It's a shame Martel felt obliged to reach for literary credibility by setting this ripping yarn in a pretentious metaphysical framework. Still, if he hadn't done so, his novel would likely never have caught the attention of Ang Lee, a filmmaker whose contemplative tendencies were visible even in his 2003 blockbuster Hulk - like Life of Pi, a fable that uses mythology to dramatise a struggle between higher and lower impulses.
The connection between the two films is clinched early on, when the young hero is seen poring over illustrations of Hindu deities. ''These were my superheroes,'' the adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) observes in the course of telling his life story to a visitor (Rafe Spall) in the present day.
Pi's account begins with his 1970s childhood in the French-Indian town of Pondicherry, where his father (Adil Hussain) owns a zoo. As a teenager (played by Suraj Sharma), he's increasingly preoccupied with religion: he declares himself equally Hindu, Christian and Muslim, seeing no contradiction in finding multiple ways to express his love of God.
When Pi is 16, his family decide to emigrate to Canada, but their ship founders in the middle of the Pacific. Pi survives, sharing a lifeboat with a few other castaways: a hyena, an orang-utan, a zebra and a tiger known whimsically as ''Richard Parker''. Gradually, the story reduces itself to a showdown between Pi and the tiger, who must arrive at a truce or perish.
David Magee's screenplay sticks closely to Martel's novel, but Lee - perhaps with a family audience in mind - downplays many of the more ghastly details of Pi's struggle to survive. The images suggest story-book illustrations painted in bright, contrasting colours, with the interior of the lifeboat a deep, unlikely red.
Though Lee is a far warmer artist than, say, David Fincher, he similarly invites us to marvel from a distance at the way cinema can bring the impossible to life. Lee's hyper-realism adds an extra layer to the central philosophical question posed by book and film: in what sense can Pi's fanciful narrative be accepted as ''true''? Ultimately, we're invited to take him at his word, simply because it makes for a better story. Implicitly, this is also why Pi chooses to believe in God.
It may say something about the contrasting expectations we bring to literary fiction and Hollywood cinema that Martel's novel reads like an invitation to suspend thought, while Lee's film qualifies as more reflective than the average blockbuster simply by raising the possibility of scepticism about what we're shown.
What is covered up when agonising reality is transformed into a fanciful tale? Allegorically speaking, Pi's efforts to tame Richard Parker suggest that humans bow to the divine for the same reason zoo animals obey their keepers: when things get bad enough, even a false god is better than none.