Faith & Film: Life of Pi

I’m always glad to find movies with spiritual themes, so I was happy to hear about “Life of Pi,” the new film by Oscar-winning director Ang Lee, based on the 2001 novel by Yann Martel.

“Life of Pi” is told in flashback by the adult Pi Patel, an Indian now living with his wife and children in Canada. Pi meets with a writer who may be interested in writing Pi’s story. The writer was told that Pi’s story would make him believe in God. Naturally the writer wanted to hear more.

Pi grew up in India with his parents, who owned a zoo, and an older brother. At the age of 16, Pi and his brother learn that their parents plan to close the zoo in India and move with the animals to Canada, where they hope to open another zoo. The Patels, along with the animals, board a freighter bound for Canada. Pi is awakened one night by a terrific storm. First Pi is intrigued by the ferocious storm. Then, to his horror, Pi realizes the ship is in danger of sinking. He is able to make it to a lifeboat, without any sign of his family. The next day, after the storm subsides, Pi sees no sign of the ship or any other humans. But Pi is not alone. With him on the lifeboat are four of the zoo animals: an orangutan, a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Most of the movie tells the story of Pi’s perilous adventure in the lifeboat. It doesn’t take long for the inevitable to happen: The only survivors on the lifeboat are Pi and Richard Parker. Naturally, Pi is terrified of the tiger. However, in a strange way, Pi credits Richard Parker with keeping him alive. The tiger has kept Pi alert. Pi also has had to find food for Richard Parker in order to keep from being his next meal. Pi spends much of his time on a tiny raft tied to the lifeboat. Eventually, though, the boy and tiger reach an uneasy truce regarding the boat, for the mutual benefit of each.

The spiritual side of the story begins with Pi’s childhood in India. He is raised Hindu by his family. One day when Pi and his brother are playing, his brother dares Pi to go into a Catholic church and drink the holy water. Pi does so. He is spotted by a priest who brings him a glass of water. Observing that Pi is staring at the crucifix, the priest explains its symbolism. The priest tells Pi that the Son of God is on the cross and died for us, because he loved us so much. Pi is captivated by this story. He returns home and announces to his surprised parents that he wants to be baptized! Not long after this, Pi happens upon a mosque during prayer time. Pi is intrigued by this experience as well, and then tells his parents he wants to become Moslem! Pi is a spiritual seeker, finding God in three of the world’s great religions. He believes that God saved him from death on his perilous Pacific journey. Now Pi has a family of his own.

Directing his first 3-D film, Lee gives us some great moments: the harrowing sinking of the freighter in the storm and an enormous surfacing by the lifeboat, capsizing the boat and almost drowning Pi and Richard Parker. There are also several beautiful scenes of brilliant starlit nights over the Pacific. The computer-generated special effects are also amazing, most particularly Richard Parker. Almost unbelievably, the huge, pacing, roaring, menacing tiger that attacks a zebra is not real, but made by computer geniuses. “Life of Pi” will certainly be a strong contender for the special effects Oscar.

“Life of Pi” is a visually stunning film with a spiritual theme. So why didn’t I like it more than I did? After a while on the lifeboat with the tiger, my interest began to wane. Pi’s journey is heroic, but lacks character development. After a while, there’s nowhere for the story to go, until the small boat finally reaches land. From Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” to the TV series “Lost,” we’ve seen variations on the stranded person(s) in the ocean waiting to be rescued many times before. Even with a computer-generated tiger and its spiritual angle, “Life of Pi” just doesn’t seem to offer much that we haven’t seen before. By the time we get back to the adult Pi and writer in Canada who offers a strange alternate twist in the story, it seems phony. “Life of Pi” may well affirm the faith of one who already believes in God. Yet, on the other hand, it doesn’t seem substantial enough to convert the non-believer either.

I understand that others have attempted to film “Life of Pi.” These other attempts were all abandoned, and the book was deemed “unfilmable.” Maybe the skeptics were correct. Even the gifted Ang Lee, with all his technical wizards, couldn’t succeed in filming “Life of Pi.”

Tom Condon, OP