Monday, February 18, 2013

Oscars 2013: Life of Pi

Life of Pi (U.S./Taiwan, 2012) directed by Ang Lee, 127 minutes
Nominated for Eleven Oscars
Best Picture
Best Cinematography
Best Directing
Best Film Editing
Best Music (Original Score)
Best Music (Original Song)
Best Production Design
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing
Best Visual Effects
Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Pi Patel, who was named for the Piscine Molitor a swimming pool in France, is now a middle-aged South Asian immigrant living in Canada with his wife and children (Irrfan Khan as the adult Pi) as the film begins. He relates his remarkable story of survival at sea, after the ship carrying his family to Canada sunk, to a Canadian writer (Rafe Spall) .

Pi, a slightly strange but highly intelligent and inquisitive boy, is raised Hindu but embraces Christianity and then Islam, and follows all three religions much to the wonder of his family. The emphasis on this aspect of the story puzzles me – its relevance to later happenings is not clear. His early life appears magical and intensely challenging emotionally - the boy is often bullied because of his name, often called "Pissing Patel", and his curiously naive but joyful interest in all that is around him.

His family owns a zoo in India and Pi is especially taken with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. When his father decides to move the family to Winnipeg, they also bring the zoo animals that they intend to sell there aboard the Japanese freighter Tzimtzum. One night, there is a tremendous storm that Pi (Suraj Sharma as the young adult Pi) witnesses on deck. The ship is about to capsize when a crew member throws Pi into a lifeboat and he watches helplessly as the ship is destroyed, likely killing all of his family and the crew of the Tzimtzum. 

I think the book (and film) may be laden with meanings that are not immediately evident to the average reader or filmgoer. Why does Piscine change his name to Pi (pronounced like the mathematical symbol π)? I suspect there is some hidden meaning that we are meant to decipher. As with the name of the ship - Tzimtzum - its origin is Hebraic: "The doctrine of Tzimtzim gives expression to a series of paradoxical ideas, amongst which is the notion that the universe as we know it is the result of a cosmic negation."

The author of the book on which the film is based, Yann Martel, is a cerebral if not particularly likable Canadian writer who often writes in challenging and intriguing ways (see his infamous response to charges of plagiarism in Life of Pi). Martel is currently experiencing the "sophomore jinx", having achieved the literary equivalent of hitting it out of the ballpark with the Man Booker prize winning Life of Pi. He has now taken to reprimanding Canadian Prime Minister Harper for being a Philistine.

But back to our story which I admit, somewhat jealously, is fairly brilliant ... 

After the storm, Pi finds that he is in the lifeboat with an injured zebra, which has broken its leg, an orangutan and spotted hyena and another survivor who is not immediately evident. The hyena quickly kills the zebra and then the orangutan. Suddenly the tiger Richard Parker, who, unbeknownst to Pi, has hidden under the tarp, leaps from it, killing the hyena and then devouring both the zebra and the orangutan at night.

Now thoroughly alone with the tiger, Pi survives on biscuits and water rations for a time. He manages to build a small raft away from the tiger, learns to fish to feed the tiger and collects rainwater for both of them to drink. He also trains the tiger to obey him.

One day, near death by starvation, he reaches a floating island. By night the island transforms into a mysterious and hostile environment: the water is acidic, the plants carnivorous. Pi even finds a human tooth embedded in some vegetation.

Much of the 3D effects of the film are beautiful and elaborate – the approach of the enormous whale that brushes against the boat at night, the lush vegetation and waters of the floating island, and the opening sequence of the fauna and animals of India are truly incredible. We are often unsure, as film goers, as to what is real and what is unreal in Pi’s fertile imagination.

Man and tiger depart from the island and the lifeboat finally reaches the coast of Mexico where Pi is rescued. Richard Parker disappears into the jungle. When insurance agents for the Japanese freighter interview him, they do not believe his fantastic tale of survival. He tells them a more realistic account of what really transpired (I won’t spoil it for you) which are, if possible, more horrific than the imagined circumstances.

Pi tells the writer that he told the agents the first tale with the tiger because “it is the better story" and asks which one the writer prefers. Of course, the writer says that he prefers the story with Richard Parker to which Pi responds, "And so it is with God". I wonder if this is a coded way of saying that this is how the story of creationism evolved?

Perhaps only Mr. Martel might tell us that.  

A life of beauty and mystery for Pi before Richard Parker

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