Considered one of the literary world’s “unfilmable books,” Yann Martel’s story of faith, purpose and coming-of-age has been a long time coming to the silver screen. I’ve not read the book, but considering that much of it takes place as a boy and a tiger are adrift at sea while also dealing with themes of religious faith, I can see why this would be such an intimidating project for most directors.
And yet, Lee approaches the story with the sort of style and confidence that could only be found from an auteur of his caliber. And really, my issue isn’t with Lee. His craftsmanship is impeccable. My issue is with the text, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
“Life of Pi” tells the story of Piscene Molitor Patel (Irrfan Khan), aka “Pi,” as he recounts his rather remarkable journey to a journalist (Rafe Spall). When his family must move from India to Canada (taking all the animals in their zoo with them), young Pi (Suraj Sharma) finds himself shipwrecked and adrift at sea, with only a tiger named Richard Parker surviving. As he drifts aimlessly, Pi must not only find a way to tame Richard Parker, but somehow reconcile the faith in God that has defined so much of his life with the seemingly hopeless situation in which he finds himself.
The visualization of this journey is stunning. Lee has always been remarkably adept at crafting lush visuals combined with a unique stylization, both of which are exercised to a masterful degree here. There are images on-screen that are among the most beautiful shots I’ve seen in any film recently, and on that front alone I can recommend “Life of Pi.”
What’s doubly impressive, though, is in how Lee maintains a sense of forward momentum despite not much actually happening for vast swaths of the film’s runtime. The majority of the movie is spent adrift at sea with only Khan’s narration and occasional bits of dialogue from Sharma.
Young Pi has no one to talk to, save for the feral beast inside the lifeboat. That tiger, by the way, is one of the single great digital creations in cinema. The folks at Rhythm and Hues have done spectacular work on the animals here, as they never seem anything less than absolutely real.
In the hands of a less skilled filmmaker, “Life of Pi” would likely have been a dreadfully dull, interminable film that could have also likely gotten lost in a sense of introspective self-importance. I can only imagine how awful it might have been had M. Night Shyamalan made it, as was originally planned.
And yet, the film finds a very moving and enriching sense of itself both visually and thematically for the majority of the time thanks to Lee’s impeccable craftsmanship. If nothing else, it’s a testament to the man’s talents as a filmmaker that he was able to craft such an engrossing film with relatively little actually happening on-screen.
Which brings me to my main issue. Fair warning: Things may get a bit spoilery if you’ve never read the book.
Martel’s ultimate conclusion is that you can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God or His guiding hand on one’s life. One’s relationship with God is a personal experience that can only be defined by the individual. And from a thematic standpoint, that’s fine. Whether or not you agree with Martel’s conclusion is another matter entirely, but what he’s saying fits as a matter of theme.
Narratively, however, it feels like having water spit into one’s face as it essentially states that the story you’ve just sat through and attached yourself to is very likely to be false. I don’t have an issue with stories using an unreliable narrator, but never once were we given reason to believe that this story (however surreal it might have seemed at times) was anything other than genuine. That we are then told that is all a matter of perception (i.e. bordering on a lie) seems like a massive betrayal of trust.
That this doesn’t completely sink the film on the spot is due almost entirely to Lee’s directorial skill and the confidence he projects as he shepherds it forward. I’m not angry at the film, at least, which is actually sort of surprising to me. It’s just difficult to reconcile the disparity between the (admittedly thought-provoking) thematic content with the needs of a good narrative.
Which is to say, if you’re at all intrigued by or interested in the film, by all means go see it. I’d love to hear how my readers react to this piece of art.