Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Life of Pi

(USA/Taiwan/UK, 2012)

I had wondered about the name of this Tamil boy from Pondicherry. Mystery solved. His father was a swimming pool enthusiast, swimming in every one he came across. In his opinion, the Piscine Molitor in Paris was the most beautiful one in the world. (Piscine is French for swimming pool.) So he names his son Piscine Molitor Patel. So from the moment he started school, everyone called him Pissing Patel. He got so fed up with it that he insisted everyone call him Pi, and he made it work by memorizing the first couple thousand digits of π and writing them on the blackboard.

This movie immediately vaults onto my very short list of ones that were actually improved by 3D, and I say that having seen it on the big theater screen, but not in 3D, which I now deeply regret. It is the most visually stunning film I’ve seen since Avatar. For well over half the film we are with Pi and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (and there’s a logical and funny reason for that, too) on a lifeboat adrift in the Pacific Ocean. And the wonders of the vast, deep, impersonal, and insanely prolific sea have never been shown so stunningly. An innumerable school of flying fish swarm the two, accidentally filling the bottom of the boat with flopping food. An enormous whale flies into the air from a luminescent night sea, swamping the boat. No less than two monster typhoons wash over us, the first sinking a big freighter, and the next one nearly destroying Pi and Richard Parker. There are more visual delights too numerous to mention.

So that’s how it looks. The story is pretty interesting, too. Pi’s family owns a zoo (shot at the Taiwan Zoo, which looks like a really nice one). But times are hard, and though they own the animals, they don’t own the land. So they load all the critters on a freighter and take off for Canada. The boat sinks in a storm, and Pi is thrown overboard. He gets on a lifeboat along with a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, and he then rescues an orangutan. The tiger is hiding under a tarp, but soon makes his presence known. From there it’s a battle of his wits against the ferocity of the hyena and the tiger. Soon only he and the tiger are left.

This is not a tame, cuddly tiger. He is able to fend it off one way or another, but doesn’t dare sleep. So he fashions a tiny raft and stays on it, tied to the boat with a rope. There is a lot of food and canned water at first, but it can be hazardous to get to it. He tries to befriend the tiger, or tame it in some way, and fails at first. But he gradually negotiates an armed truce.

For a long time this is a story of survival. He catches some big fish and feeds the tiger. He’s a vegetarian, but learns to like sushi. (One fish he catches is a bluefin tuna, which is sold at a premium in sushi bars, and is absolutely delicious, take my word for it! One fish recently sold in Japan for $1.7 million, $3600 per pound. One fish!)

Then it starts to get really strange. There has been a deep thread of religion and spirituality in the story from the first. Pi was raised Hindu, but he’s a seeker, and tries out Christianity and Islam, eventually trying to practice all three at once. Nothing completely satisfies him, including his father’s strict rationalism. But I suspect that anyone who spends 227 days on a lifeboat with a tiger would begin to have spiritual experiences and/or hallucinations, including rationalist me. He lands on an island overrun with a few billion meerkats (quite a scene, that), and never mind that meerkats are from Africa. Not only that, but the island itself is carnivorous. They leave, and are eventually cast ashore in Mexico. Richard Parker, emaciated, skin and bones, wanders off into the jungle without even a sentimental backward glance. Pi mourns his loss.

This has all been presented with a framing device of an older Pi telling this story to a novelist. At the end of the story, the insurers of the Japanese freighter show up and ask for his story. They initially reject the tall tale of the boy and the tiger, so he concocts another one for them. It’s a lot nastier than the one we saw. What is real, what is reality? We are left to decide for ourselves, but the Japanese, in the end, prefer the tiger. So do I.

There is much talk of “God” and his intentions and plans and mercy or lack of it. I take God to mean that indefinable something that I feel exists somewhere, somehow, in the sense that I don’t think we will ever answer all the questions of the Universe, simply because each answer raises another question. I reject the stories of every religion I have ever encountered. They are just folk tales told by hairless apes quivering in the dark as Beasts roam outside, bent on eating us. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think something else is going on with this thing we call consciousness. I just don’t think we’ll ever figure it out. So I enjoyed Pi’s seeking, even on that level. A lot of the religious talk strikes me as simplistic, but it was a minor point. I was with this movie from the first frames until the end.