“If every unfolding we experience takes us further along in life, then we are truly experiencing what life is offering.”
Based on the supposedly “unfilmable” book, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is the story of really two stories, and in the end, we’re left thinking and meditating and pondering which story is the truth and what we should take that ultimate truth to mean. The film is one big series of flashbacks, told by an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) to an author (Rafe Spall) who has been told that Pi has a story that will “make [him] believe in God.”
The main character, a younger Pi (played for most of the film by Suraj Sharma), is a religiously curious and complex boy. He grew up practicing his native Hinduism, whereby he came to know and consider Christ, and after which he began to see the truths of Islam. He is not constantly converting, mind you — he is practicing each religion simultaneously. One quick conversation that stuck with me was this one, between adult Pi and the author:
Pi: Religion is a house with many rooms.
Author: But with no room for doubt?
Pi: Oh yes, room on every floor.
After living his entire childhood life in India, Pi and his family, who own a zoo full of animals, must pack up and leave India by ship for Canada, where Pi’s father has plans for a better life. The animals come, too, so they can be auctioned off in North America. But a vicious storm hits and causes vast destruction. Pi and a couple of animals are thrown overboard and find refuge on a lifeboat, while the ship — a Japanese cargo ship called the Tsimtsum — is destroyed and sinks to the bottom of the ocean, leaving his family, the ship’s passengers and crew, and the other animals to perish in the depths of the ocean.
Among Pi’s unlikely new companions are an injured zebra, an orangutan mother who has lost her child, a ravaging hyena, and a tiger named Richard Parker, lurks beneath the boat’s tarp. In time, only Pi and Richard Parker remain as survivors on the lifeboat.
Pi spends the majority of his time — and who wouldn’t — keeping as much distance as possible between he and Richard Parker, but slowly learns that, in order to survive, the two must work together and protect each other. It is a hard line for him to toe, but as their journey progresses, Pi tames Richard Parker and the two become friends, of sorts.
The visuals created by Ang Lee are marvelous. In fact, Life of Pi is one of just three films — Avatar and Hugo being the other two — that I think use the 3D format in a way that really adds to the story.
When you think about it, the entire film is a splendid array of visual effects, a mix of CGI and real world beings that come together to create a beautiful work of art. The tiger, Richard Parker, is just one example of how a real life being and computer effects intertwine to create such a big piece of the story.
I love the way that Ang Lee chooses to tell the story here. At first, we see flashbacks spliced with present-day Pi relaying the story to the author, to help build background and move the story along. Then when we get to the meat of the story, all we see for the longest time are a younger Pi and Richard Parker, forced to live together in a couple-hundred square foot boat.
The one thing that I’m a bit hung up on, and that I’ve been thinking about since leaving the theater, is Ang Lee’s choice of verbiage toward the end of the film.
In the final act, we discover that Pi, who has finally reached land after 277 days at sea, was interviewed by Japanese insurance agents about the destruction of the Tsimtsum. He tells the agents his marvelous story, but they do not believe him. They need something more believable to put in their report. And so Pi tells them another story — with immediacy and emotion — wherein the animals are replaced with human characters. He tells this same story to the author.
The agents are tasked with choosing which story to put in their report. After relaying the stories to the author, Pi asks him, “So, which story do you prefer?”
I find myself thinking: What does he mean by “prefer?” Which do I think is Pi’s true story? Which do I want to be true? Which makes me feel all warm inside?
I like to think that, in asking this, Pi (and thus, Lee) means to askwhich story do you believe? Obviously, the story with the animals is the more enthralling tale. But this is a story that, as stated, is supposed to make us believe in God. And so I find that it makes sense to phrase Pi’s question with the word “believe” in place of “prefer.”
Whatever Lee’s intent, the story is still powerful, and still awe-inspiring. And in the end, we are allowed to pick the story we believe. Do we choose the one with the animals, the one that is fantastical and inherently unbelievable? Or do we choose the one with the humans, the one that seems more real and shows the darkness of humanity?
I believe the story with the animals. What say you?