Principal Cast : Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussein, Ayan Khan, Mohamed Abbas Khaleeli, Vibish Sivakumar, Guatam Belur, Ayush Tandon, Rafe Spall, Gerard Depardieu, Andrea DiStefano.
Synopsis: A young Indian boy is shipwrecked in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with only a fully grown Bengal tiger for company.
Stories of survival against the odds have long held a fascination with audiences of all ages. Films depicting humans beings – or in many cases, a single human – trying to survive against either nature, or some man-made cataclysm, have held their own in cinema form for many years, and most have met with a degree of success, probably because the good ones see the protagonist usually survive. Unless that protagonist is Liam Neeson in The Grey, in which case punching wolves is the only solution. Whether these films be fictional, such as Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away, or based on true stories, like Danny Boyle’s exceptional 127 Hours, audiences strap in for a harrowing ride into their own personal hell: trapped, stranded or injured, with no hope of rescue and and intense desire to survive, we often see ourselves in these people who beat the odds, and we like to think that we’d be as forthright in similar situations. More often than not, though, the reverse would probably be more accurate. Life Of Pi, based on the 2001 novel of the same name by Yann Martel, is another in a long line of self-exploration stories told through amazing adversity, helmed by visual stylist Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hulk, and The Ice Storm) and featuring a cast of virtual unknowns to Western audiences. The themes of Life Of Pi are humanistic, religious and spiritual, wrapped in Lee’s stunning cinematography and featuring some captivating central performances, and you’d be hard pressed to remain stoic as the layered narrative unfolds. Whether all these kinds of films owe their existence to Robinson Crusoe or not, only a corpse wouldn’t find something to enjoy in Life Of Pi.
A writer (Rafe Spall) has come to the home of Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) to discuss a story the writer heard while in a cafe locally. Pi relates the story of his childhood, growing up in India, where his parents, Santosh (Adil Hussein) and Gita (Tabu) owned and ran a zoo. Named Piscene Molitor after a French swimming pool, and teased as a child when the other students misappropriated his name into “Pissing”, Pi was born into a Hindu family, before discovering Christianity through a local church, and then also converting to Islam while still a child – in the present day, he teaches a course on the Jewish faith at the local university. When his family decide to move to Winnipeg, Canada, they embark on a journey across the Pacific with their zoo animals (which they hope to sell to raise enough money to fund the beginning of a new life), a journey which comes to an abrupt halt when the boat is hit by a massive tropical storm. When the boat sinks, Pi is the only human survivor after he is pushed onto a lifeboat by one of the crew. During the storm, the animals are released from below decks, and run rampant over the vessel, before a zebra falls onto the craft just as the ropes snap and Pi sees his family and everything he knows disappear beneath the churning waves. Pi sees what he thinks is a person in the water, although it turns out to be a tiger named Richard Parker (long story, but it’s basically a bureaucratic bungle), who boards the lifeboat against Pi’s wishes. Also aboard is a hyena, and soon an orangutan names Orange Juice. As Pi and his dwindling menagerie drift for hours, days and eventually months, he and Richard Parker come to a level of mutual respect through their situation: an unfortunate encounter with a breaching whale leaves the vegetarian Pi with little edible food, while Richard Parker’s increasingly agitated state through starvation leads to Pi learning how to catch fish to feed the hungry animal. As the days turn into months, Pi and Richard Parker form a tenuous bond which allows them to continue on through the endless ocean, always hoping to find civilization once more.
One of the great things about cinema is its power to move you. It’s probably the defining attribute of the medium which has captured humanity since its inception at the dawn of the 20th Century. Life Of Pi is 2012’s entrant into the Films That Move You categ0ry, and is a worthy entrant indeed. Allusions to Zemeckis films such as Cast Away and Forrest Gump resonated with me while I watched this, and although you might say Life Of Pi is neither of those two films, I beg to differ. Cast Away saw Tom Hanks isolated on an island in the middle of the ocean, with only the harsh elements and a volleyball named Wilson for company. Pi is isolated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on a boat no bigger than a large SUV, with only the harsh elements and a fully grown Bengal tiger for company. Hanks had to struggle to make fire, learn to catch fish and removed a septic tooth with an ice-skate. Pi doesn’t have the luxury of fire -he’s on a boat at sea – and as a vegetarian can’t eat the fish he catches to feed the hungry Richard Parker, and while he doesn’t need to remove a body part without anesthetic, the pang of losing his entire family on the sinking ship stings just as much. At least Hank’s wife lived at the end of Cast Away. Then there’s the Gumpian flashback narrative style of the film: Pi relates his story to an initially skeptical writer, using a number of philosophical hooks to draw him (and us) into the tale. Sure, Pi never shakes hands with an American president, nor does he inadvertently influence the invention of a number of pop-culture icons, but his story is influential. Yes, there’s a lot to draw on with Life Of Pi, especially in comparison to other films, but that’s about where those comparisons end, for Pi is its own film in many other ways.
As a piece of art, there’s no denying Life Of Pi’s pedigree. Ang Lee’s reputation for developing character and layering his films with meaning is intact here, even in spite of its overwhelmingly glorious cinematography. I don’t think I’ve seen a film as wondrously beautiful since What Dreams May Come, but never once does that work against the essential ingredients of the story itself. Often, a film’s distinctive look will crush the life out of whatever message the director is trying to give, burying it beneath layers of lighting, visual effects and eye-popping color schemes. Life Of Pi, which is easily the most beautifully lensed film of the last twelve months (hell, the last decade, I’d wager) perfectly balances its jaw-dropping visual style with the lovely, sweet-natured examination of faith and humanity, allowing both to exist in harmony instead of waging war with each other. The script, based on the book, is by David Magee, and while I’m not sure how much of the original book was excised or included, I thought Magee did a wonderful job keeping the spirit – the spiritualism – of the story intact as much as he did. There’s no diluting of anything potentially controversial, although controversy isn’t what this film is about – if anything, it’s about the exact opposite.
DOP Claudio Miranda deserves the Oscar for cinematography here: over and above whatever criticism or plaudits the film receives, I doubt there’s any legitimate argument to be made for the film not to snag it for that. The digital effects and stunning camerawork are seamless, fully wrapping the audience up in this brilliantly conceived, stunningly executed world of Pi as he drifts across the ocean. Lee’s use of framing and camera technique is in full swing, with a Zemeckis-ian sense of never giving us the same shot more than once. His camera sweeps over the ocean, descends into the depths, covers every inch of Pi’s lifeboat and the antics of he and Richard Parker, never feeling claustrophobic or repetitive. His stylish use of fading between sequences and intercutting through double imagery that began with Hulk continues here, although in this instance it’s less “look at me” than in previous iterations. It’s the mark of a great filmmaker that a story set essentially in one location for a prolonged period of time never feels…. boring. Watch out too for Mychael Danna’s gorgeous score too, because that leaps up on you and takes you completely by surprise.
The film’s central success isn’t with the stunning production design or technical skill, however; this film lives and dies on its cast’s performances. Lead actor Suraj Sharma, in portraying Pi for the period he’s stranded on the lifeboat, is just wonderful in the role. He essays the part to perfection, capturing the many stages of emotion one must go through in that situation – rage, fear, acceptance and hopelessness, and he carries this film’s emotional baggage with ease. As the older Pi, Irrfan Khan does a commendably solid job, although he’s given less emotional work to do largely due to the fact that he’s recounting the story, rather than engaging with it – his rapport with Rafe Spall, who plays the writer, is terrific, almost like these two are old friends. The bulk of the ensemble cast are also equally good: the young actors playing Pi throughout his life, as well as Adil Hussein and Tabu playing Pi’s parents, feel quite suited to the roles, never once coming off like stunt casting to get the look just right. I still can’t understand why neither Hussein or Sharma weren’t given acting nominations for this film – their work is good enough, if you ask me. Of the non-human roles in the film, none is more astonishing than that of Richard Parker, the tiger. Life Of Pi is a film where I truly don’t want to know “how they did it” in bringing Richard Parker to life – I suspect a combination of live action tiger, and digital avatar version blended together – but whatever it was, works seamlessly. I mean seam–less–ly. It’s impossible to tell whether it’s all real, or entirely digital, and that serves to not only capture your imagination, but make the character of this angry, frightened beast all the more believable. It’s a truly remarkable feat of film-making.
Astute readers of this review will note that I’ve barely touched on the core themes of Life of Pi, and the truth is, I don’t really want to. It’s the kind of film experience where a deeper examination of issues of faith and belief should be kept personal… truth is, I’m too lazy to decipher my own feelings on the matter and reveal them here, largely because I think faith and the perception of it is best left un-critiqued – that’s an element of humanity that shouldn’t be given a mark out of ten. What I will say is that Life Of Pi could touch you in any number of ways emotionally and spiritually: I think it’s up to the individual to ask what part of him or herself it registers with. Those of you who aren’t of a religious persuasion might find this part of the film a little scoff-worthy, and I’d hardly expect Life of Pi to suddenly convert anyone to a spiritual pathway, but as an examination of spirituality and the concepts of religion and what we choose to believe, Life Of Pi is commendably approachable.
While I can see Life Of Pi being worthy of an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (although lacking a nod in the acting categories…. are you serious?) I doubt it’s the best picture of 2012. Pi is a wonderful, wondrous film, and easily entertaining and emotionally manageable, but there’s a dramatic unevenness that works against it at times. The film’s final twenty minutes, which seems counter-intuitive to the preceding 100 minutes or so, nearly manages to undo all Lee’s good work at building up the whimsical, fantastical nature of Pi’s journey, sees Pi relating a hard-bitten tale of desperation and death to a pair of reluctant insurance assessors, feels incongruously flat compared to the rest of the movie; almost a kill-joy moment that robs the films ethereal potency of legitimacy at the last minute. I understood why this needed to be in the film, but I didn’t think it worked as well as Lee hoped it would. I also felt that the India-set opening sequences of the film didn’t pay off during the denouement or even during the mid-section of the film: Pi loses his entire family at sea and aside from a few moments immediately afterwards, this fact is barely mentioned again? I’d have thought a tragedy this profound might have some kind of payoff towards the end, and although I guess it does in a small way, the small way doesn’t offset the crucial emotional weight of what it means to Pi to have a family of his own again.
Life Of Pi has a vibrancy and effortless grace about it that just oozes off the screen. The delightful light-hearted nature of the script, the sense of magic, whimsy and Lee’s terrific sense of timing and use of effects, and the brilliant performances by Sharma and Hussein along with the rest of the cast, make Life Of Pi one of the more magical films of the 2012 year. There’s a cinematic delight at play here, a truly visionary style from Lee, and when it all comes together this well, the result is absolute gold. Life Of Pi is highly recommended for audiences with an open mind, a broad expectation, and a love of pure cinema.