Creating dramatic tension can be as simple, and unorthodox, as setting together a hungry adult Bengal tiger and an Indian teenager on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Not so simple is using that vehicle as a means to shape and examine said teenager’s spiritual development in the entertaining, well-crafted, yet theologically dissonant cinematic adaptation of the Booker prize-winning novel Life of Pi.
Piscine Patel’s early life would be the envy of many children. Raised in a stable, comfortable household, his father (Adil Hussain) runs a zoo in India, affording Piscine the opportunity to interact with many of the animals. The main drawback to this seemingly idyllic childhood is the willful mispronunciation of his name by several mean-spirited classmates to sound like the description of a bodily function. Determined to combat this teasing, the young Piscine (Ayush Tandon) adopts the nickname of Pi and embraces its mathematical association to the point where he literally memorizes the first hundred or so digits of the number, to the amazement of students and teachers alike.
As a young boy, Pi turns his attention to another complex, age-old issue of competing religions. Raised in a Hindu environment, Pi’s curiosity leads him to learn about God’s love through Christianity, followed by a growing respect for the traditions of Islam. A teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) soon begins to adopt aspects of multiple religious traditions, leading to a syncretistic faith that exasperates his father, who would rather Pi believe in a religion he disagreed with than the mishmash Pi has created for himself.
Pi lives in this innocent, irenic spiritual state when he meets his moment of crisis. His father decides to ship his animals and family to Canada in pursuit of better opportunities, but their freighter sinks in a storm, leaving Pi alone with the zoo’s tiger in his lifeboat.
The ship-sinking sequence is particularly harrowing and awe-inspiring, and director Ang Lee does an exceptional job of showing the smallness and helplessness Pi feels in the midst of such a catastrophe, one of several scenes that earns the film its PG rating.
Lee’s use of 3D in this section and other moments in the film is as seamless and organic a use of the technology as any film produced in the recent 3D craze, with the possible exception of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. And the CGI tiger Lee’s effects team has created is so life-like it makes the recent depiction of Aslan in the Narnia films look fake by comparison.
In this environment, Lee deftly explores the dual yet interlocking challenges Pi faces of surviving with a tiger on a lifeboat and surrendering himself completely to God so he can gain the strength he needs to endure. In Lee’s terms, the endless ocean where this drama plays out “is like a desert, a test of his faith, his strength.”
Yet, as screenwriter David Magee puts it, the strength Pi finds to survive lies not in one particular religion or blend of religions. “The point of the book, I think, is not to say that any of these belief systems is the right one. It’s to say that we all have stories that get us through our lives. … Some people believe in Christianity, some [are] Buddhist, but when you are faced with the ordeal like Pi’s, you are sent on a journey. You then have to call upon those stories to help you get through. So Pi has been exposed to all of them, and in some ways, all of those stories contribute to his journey and help him on that journey. So it’s not just a story about religion. It’s a story about storytelling and the value of stories to get us through our lives.”
As valuable as stories can be, Life of Pi elevates them at the expense of theological truth. According to Magee, “Our goal in writing the film the way we did was to make sure that you could read the story or stories in any way you wanted to and it would be more of a reflection on your own belief system at the end.” As such, the film represents a Rorschach test of truth, which makes for thought-provoking storytelling, but quixotic theology.