Life of Pi, 13th January 2013

Life of Pi

He said you had a story that would make me believe in God.

Ang Lee is one of my favourite filmmakers (The Ice Storm is a brilliant exploration of middle America, I adored Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and I think his version of Sense and Sensibility is one of the best adaptations of any British novel) so I knew that the allegedly unfilmable Life of Pi was in safe hands.

Life of Pi is Canadian author Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel which many (including Barack Obama) believe proves the existence of God. It’s the story of Piscine Molitor (‘Pi’) Patel, an Indian boy whose father owns a zoo, and how he survived a shipwreck that killed his family and left him stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean for 227 days with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker.

I saw Life of Pi in 3D and right from the opening credits, which depict India’s natural beauty and include close-ups of some of the zoo animals, until the closing sequence on a Mexican beach, the film is a visual sensation. Lee and his cinematographer and special effects team have worked wonders. The shipwreck sequence is utterly terrifying and you feel, like the teenage Pi, completely at the mercy of the towering waves. But Lee also shows us the beauty of the ocean: swarms of flying fish, soaring whales, the water glowing with jellyfish, the crystal clear ocean mirroring the heavens above. It is breathtaking.

Yet this film is not just a vehicle for new technology and Lee’s mastery of it – and it is to Lee’s credit that he retains a light touch and does not allow style to reign over substance. Life of Pi has a story to tell and raises important questions about the relationship between humans and animals, about life, philosophy, religion and survival in even the most desperate of circumstances. Whether or not Yann Martel or Ang Lee believe the story proves the existence of God, this amazing tale of courage and survival is likely to make even the most cynical of viewers ask questions about what it means to believe.

The story is told in flashback as the adult Pi, now living in Canada, tells his fantastic life story to a struggling author. For the first third of the film, Lee alternates between young and adult Pi, but one of the best choices Lee makes is choosing not to interrupt the 227 days where teenage Pi is stranded in the Pacific with Richard Parker. This long sequence (I think it must have been 30-40 minutes) focuses purely on the relationship between man and the environment, boy and tiger. Newcome Suraj Sharma is a revelation as the teenage Pi, especially when you consider he must have been acting opposite nothing much of the time. He manages to make you laugh, make you despair, and make you cry. There is a lot of silence in this film – a tiger cannot talk – and it is a brave move by Lee not to disrupt this section, and testament to the power of the screenplay that we do not need any more words than the few Pi addresses to Richard Parker, or to himself.

Life of Pi represents the very best of filmmaking: a visual sensation, a marvellous central performance, and the sense that you have experienced something extraordinary.

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Categories: Cinema

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