Tiger blood – Life of Pi review

Life of Pi – Starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, and Rafe Spall. Directed by Ang Lee. Rated PG. By Simon Miraudo.

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Ang Lee attempts a Hail Mary pass with his adaptation of Yann Martel’s parable Life of Pi. No one could reasonably suggest the Oscar winning director’s good name has been tarnished in recent years, though his last venture, the misguided Taking Woodstock, was an abject failure. Rather than play it safe – how exactly does a filmmaker whose varied credits include Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hulk, Brokeback Mountain, and Lust Caution do that anyway? – he rose from the ashes intent on bring the ‘unfilmable’ Life of Pi to, ahem, life. It relies on the star presence of an acting amateur and some CGI animals, asks its audience to take a massive leap of faith, and results in a closer consideration of our religious convictions. It’d be a miracle if he pulled it off, right? Praise Lee, Life of Pi is an awe-inspiring little wonder.

The book and picture is framed in the same manner; with an author (Rafe Spall) visiting Indian immigrant Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) at his home in Montreal. He’s been told Pi has a story that will make him “believe in God,” though Pi wouldn’t dare wrap his tale in such hyperbole. He sensitively begins to relate tales from his youth in India, where the Hindu-raised son of a zookeeper found himself entranced by both Christianity and Islam. When his father decides to uproot the family and move to Canada, they board a Japanese freighter and bring their numerous creatures along for the ride. An apocalyptic storm interrupts their passage, and teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) is seemingly the only one to survive. That is, until a wounded zebra, a resourceful chimpanzee, a vicious hyena, and the seemingly untamable lion Richard Parker invade his lifeboat.

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Sharma, selected from 3,000 young men for the part, astounds in his debut performance. A wonderful mirror to Khan’s warm, wounded elder, Sharma is asked to bring a deft comic touch, terrified desperation, religious fervour, and ultimately resignation to the fore, acting opposite a bunch of animated animals. He delivers. The special effects team also achieves the unthinkable with their creation, Richard Parker. Not since Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ Caesar has a CGI character been imbued with such pathos, but Caesar had the advantage of speech (admittedly, his vocab was limited). Richard Parker is an immaculately reconstructed beast, and so much more.

As a fan of Martel’s novel, I had my doubts as to whether I would buy the visuals of a lone Indian boy sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. What if it was an image that could only exist in our mind’s eye, and any attempts to reconstruct it would immediately cause it to dissipate like a barely-recollected dream? With the help of DP Claudio Miranda, Lee constructs an impressionistic canvas that feels like our collective imagination projected on a screen. Mychael Danna’s score similarly adds to the ethereal sensation.

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Those unfamiliar with the novel’s religious underpinnings may feel blindsided by Life of Pi’s final ‘twist,’ though it’s far from the secret Christian sales pitch some may suspect. This is not a tale of religious salvation; it’s about human resilience and resourcefulness, and how those can only thrive if coated in the cotton wool of faith that makes reality less painful. Besides the herculean efforts required by Pi to survive on that lonely raft, the most significant choices he makes while lost at sea are those that allow him to carry on afterwards. Should he curse God for setting him adrift in the first place, or thank God for the occasional bounty of rewards – fish, hypnotic star showers – sent his way? These are important questions, because when he reaches dry land he’ll have to reconcile those conflicted feelings with all of his deeply held beliefs, and perhaps wonder if there’s a God at all. Life of Pi is about the tests we undergo and the tools we use to endure them, religious or otherwise.

Atheists, agnostics, and even the most casual of Catholics (I’m the latter) shouldn’t fear a movie steeped in faith. Religion is the most fascinating – and lasting – contribution humankind has made to history of the universe. The narratives we’ve invented for ourselves, the lengths we’ll go to defend them (often ending in bloodshed), and the goodness they can occasionally inspire will likely be the most significant footprint we leave for future generations. There needs to be more features that examine this most human of subjects. The Master, Lourdes, and Meek’s Cutoff have done a good job of examining the lives and motives of people of faith. Life of Pi does the same, yet it’s no blindly enthusiastic allegory. It’s about storytellers, one of whom chooses to believe he was tortured and eventually saved for reasons more significant than he could ever comprehend. He’ll spend the rest of his time on this Earthly plane believing his life matters, and living accordingly. Even if such a belief was born from a fallacy, wouldn’t that be better than the truth?

4/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

Life of Pi arrives in Australian cinemas January 1, 2013.

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