‘Life of Pi’: Tiger by the tail

November 21, 2012

A fascinating fable about the meaning of both faith and fate, “Life of Pi” is a wonderfully visual telling of a Yann Martel’s best-selling and award-winning novel.

Director Ang Lee raises the bar on digital imagery, even as he puts it in service to his story. He’s also one of the few directors to use 3D as something other than a gimmick or the money-grab that the studios have turned it into. He doesn’t just give the image a third dimension; he gives the whole film a sense of wondrous depth.

It is as though Lee is painting the film as you watch it. The colors swirl and blend, yet they also define an environment that is at once idyllic and hellish. Shooting on the water – and underneath it, at times – he makes “Life of Pi” a hallucinatory vision of a stark reality.

Told in flashback by the now-adult Pi Patel (played as an adult by Irrfan Khan and as a teen by Suraj Sharma), “Life of Pi” has the aging Patel sitting in his apartment, where he is making dinner for a friend of a friend. The guest says that their mutual acquaintance has told him to ask Pi to tell his story. So Pi obliges.

What follows is a lengthy and sumptuous flashback, offering Pi’s incredible tale. In short: While traveling from his native India to Canada as a teen with a shipload of zoo animals, he was shipwrecked when the ship sank. He wound up on a lifeboat, his only companion an adult male Bengal tiger.

They are adrift in the Pacific Ocean, very quickly suffering the effects of no water or food. Pi must figure out how to keep the tiger at bay, even as they both try to survive thirst and hunger.

But Lee’s movie – and Martel’s book – are about more than the simple castaway tale at the core. Not that there’s anything wrong with enjoying this story simply on the level of an adventure; it works wonderfully in that way, compelling you with suspense, action and even humor.

But “Life of Pi” is after something bigger. Like the number represented by the character’s name – which is actually a shortened version of “Piscine,” the French word for swimming pool – there are endless layers here and you can go as deep as you’d like.

Pi, after all, is a seeker as a youth. Born a Hindu, he eventually discovers both Islam and Christianity – and finds himself drawn to all three sets of beliefs. His search confuses his parents – and ultimately confounds him, when he finds himself lost at sea.

Here he is, a true believer of not one but three different versions of the deity. And what has his true belief earned him? A deadly reminder of just what a speck he is in the larger scheme of things. Indeed, it is a crystalline demonstration of man’s puniness in the face of nature, and how powerless man is against the larger forces of the world. (As if Hurricane Sandy weren’t reminder enough – and that’s not even mentioning the karmic consequences of man-made climate change that it represents.)

What, Pi wonders as he drifts on the ocean, trying to keep himself from being eaten by his shipmate, is God’s plan? It apparently is too massive and unknowable for one man to divine. Is Pi’s fate because of God? Or in spite of him? Or a little of both?

Who is to say? Certainly not Ang Lee, who simply tells the story and lets the audience draw its own conclusions.

But what a story – and what a storyteller. Lee lulls the viewer into the same doldrums that Pi experiences, then jolts his world with natural phenomena: bioluminescence for one, a breaching whale for another, a flock of flying fish for a third. There are more, sometimes just in the nick of time, sometimes the opposite. But “Life of Pi,” despite a two-and-a-half-hour running time, never drags or suffers from a lull. Instead, it puts you right there in the boat – or floating alongside it on a makeshift raft – and lets you experience this castaway state along with Pi.

Sharma is an expressive young actor; his work is all the more impressive when you consider that he played opposite an empty space. The wholly convincing tiger is created digitally but feels completely real. It has weight, depth and expression. So does Sharma, who carries virtually the entire movie on his young shoulders. He is a newcomer who has the stillness and expressiveness of a seasoned pro.

Cinematographer Claudio Miranda and editor Tim Squyres blend the imagery into a mix of the real and the fantastic; it’s hard to tell where one stops and the other starts. There is a dreamlike quality at times, which can give way to the nightmarish reality in which Pi finds himself.

“Life of Pi” is as emotionally satisfying a film as you’ll see this year: a tale of the strength required to think long-term and the willingness to simply exist in the moment. It is a magical and involving movie, a holiday treat that quickly earns its place as a classic.

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