Life of Pi
Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Gerard Depardieu
Life of Pi is one of those lyrical, internalised novels that should have no business working on the screen. Quite possibly, it wouldn’t have worked if anyone but Ang Lee had adapted it. The filmmaker has crafted one of the finest entries in his eclectic resume in this gorgeous, ruminative film that is soulfully entertaining.
Lee combines a lifetime of storytelling finesse with arguably the most artful use of digital 3D technology yet seen to bring to life Yann Martel’s saga of an Indian boy lost at sea with a ravenous Bengal tiger on a small lifeboat. It’s a delicate narrative with visceral effect, told with a philosophical voice that compassionately explores how and why we tell stories.
Our playful, not-always-reliable narrator here is Pi Patel, played by the newcomer Suraj Sharma as a teenager and Irrfan Khan as a grown man reflecting back on his adventure. Pi, his parents and brother set out from India, where the family runs a zoo in a botanical garden, to Canada. Pi’s father brings along some of his menagerie on their voyage, including a tiger named Richard Parker.
Their ship sinks in a storm, with Pi the only human survivor aboard a lifeboat with an orang-utan, a hyena, a zebra and Richard Parker. Survival of the fittest thins their numbers into a life-and-death duel, and eventually an uneasy truce of companionship, between Richard Parker and Pi.
This could be a one-note story – “Please, Mister Tiger, don’t eat me”. Yet Lee and the screenwriter David Magee find rich and clever ways to translate even Pi’s stillest moments, the film unfolding through intricate flashbacks,- -whimsical -voice-overs and exquisite flashes of -hallucination.
The rest of the cast is mostly inconsequential, including Gérard Depardieu in a fleeting role as a ship’s cruel cook. The other people in Pi’s life are filtered through this unusual youth’s eyes, each of them catalysts in the development of his deep spirituality, which blends Hinduism, Christianity and Islam into a weirdly cohesive form of humanism.
Like Martel’s novel, the film scorns our inclination to anthropomorphise wild animals by ascribing human traits to them, then turns around and subtly does just that. Friendship cannot possibly exist between a hungry tiger and a scrawny kid alone on the open water; yet, for that boy, if not the cat, the need for togetherness, some commune of spirits, is almost as strong as the need for food and water.