There are two kinds of films that pose some of the greatest challenges to writers and directors: films about the nature of religious based faith and ones dealing with the very nature of storytelling. Both can seem incredibly preachy and narrow minded because they simply stick to a single point of view that can easily have holes poked into it. With director Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s best selling novel Life of Pi, an excellent balance is struck between the philosophical and the grounded in one of the best written and directed films of the year.
On a tip from a colleague, a Montreal writer (Rafe Spall) goes to visit Pi Patel at his home to hear his incredible story of survival at sea. Separated from his Indian family as they attempt to move their zoo across the ocean and land to Winnipeg following a shipwreck of the coast of Manilla, the young man (first time actor Suraj Sharma) struggles for survival in life boat that’s also become home to an orangutan, a hyena, and a massive Bengal Tiger with the unusual name of Richard Parker.
Following a deceptively low key, but entirely necessary and rewarding set up in which we’re introduced to Pi’s family and his life long love of every possible religion as a child, the film follows up the heartbreaking loss of his loved ones with most of the film taking place with our lead having no one to talk to other than himself. Even the narration that comes from a survivalist guidebook Pi scribbles in feels sparse and only used when absolutely necessary.
Lee’s visual eye and stunning use of 3D and CGI dazzles not only because of how gloriously realized it all is, but because later in the film it will become apparent that everything you see is an intricate part of the narrative’s framework. There isn’t a single wasted breath in the entire screenplay from Academy Award winner David Magee (who previously won for the equally sharp script for the storytelling narrative of Finding Neverland), and Lee paces the film so deftly and nimbly that the passage of time Pi goes through on the boat feels real without being boring or dragging. It’s possibly the best pairing of a writer and a director in any film this year, and definitely the best for a megabudget studio production.
Suraj Sharma also deserves a special amount of consideration when thinking about the film come awards season, especially since he never even swam before acting in a film that requires him to be at sea for most of the running time. He’s the perfect intermediary for Lee to build a sometimes fantastical world around him. He still has a sense of wonder about him and a deep fear that comes through at appropriate moments. Pi never wants to do most of the things he’s forced to do in the film, and Sharma nails the struggle between the heart and the mind with a surprising amount of emotional resonance from a newcomer.
One of the biggest themes from Martel’s text actually gets a massive upgrade here. On the page, dancing around the idea of spiritualism as a form of storytelling can be a bit dicey and something that can be easily over-thought by a reader looking at the source material in a cantankerous mood. Lee and Magee cut the fat to an astounding degree, capturing relevancy without once blunting the film’s overlying statement. The conclusion of the film offers up a brilliant counterpoint to the fantasy the audience just witnessed and asks them point blank how they would possibly be able to tell the story better. It’s a gutsy and surprisingly in your face move that opens the film up to countless interpretations about its meaning and the nature of the story being told. And yet, while it’s a film that can be puzzled over and analyzed to death, it’s never boringly academic and consistently entertaining. It certainly is a rare and special kind of film with both broad and centralized appeal, and that’s something that hasn’t been seen in multiplexes in years.
Cast: Irrfan Khan, Suraj Sharma, Rafe Spall
Directed by: Ang Lee
Top image: A scene from Life of Pi. Courtesy 20th Century Fox.