Friday, February 1, 2013

The Veracity of Self—Life of Pi

Ang Lee has given us a film for the ages, fitting for our century, and it will be remembered for its vision, veracity, and honesty, particularly about god and religion.

DEMAND ON VIEWER: Mild (some scenes may startle children)

For all the reasons already given by others—its use of 3D technology in a balanced, sophisticated way, its breathtaking artistry, its surround-the-viewer with an ocean adventure sweep—Ang Lee's Life of Pi is a good film. But these things by themselves do not make it the masterpiece that it is.

Pi is a timely film about all of the Big Questions: the meaning of suffering, religions and god, and the stories and myths we tell ourselves as a human race in order to survive and flourish. It pits us face to face with a natural world that is both stunningly beautiful and horrifically dangerous. It asks us to examine just why we are on the journey we are on, and whether god is really at the heart of it.

Piscine Molitor Patel is an inquiring boy who is open to the contribution of religion (over and against his family's barbs at the dinner table). He explores Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, feeling devoted to them all. At the same time he introduces us to a world of sound and color in India, where dance forms and family customs are not our own. So there is at the outset a very global, diverse feel to the story.

Pi is an emotional film, but its emotion is genuine and not gratuitous or manipulated. The tiger is not a pet; it is a danger constantly, and there is a message about not sentimentalizing nature here. The tiger leaves without a word, even after Pi has done so much for it. Pi's heart is broken over this; and words from his father echo from the beginning of the story: "The tiger is not your friend." For a film with a clear love of animals and of their grandeur, this is a remarkable and unusual twist.

Pi is a call to bravery. My sons saw the film and had to be brave along with Pi during the story. They are not ready to digest the meta-narrative about religious story-telling, but they could understand that Pi held out through unbelievable odds. This kind of virtue-instillment is an important feature of film. Good films help encourage us to keep persevering under great stress; they help us to see that the turns of fate will be as fortunate as terrible, and that we can find and redefine ourselves in that struggle.

***SPOILER ALERT*** Please, if you have not seen the film, stop reading here, and go experience this film for yourself.

The adult Pi (Irfan Khan) explains to a journalist (Rafe Spall) that by the end of the story, the journalist (and by extension, we the viewers) will believe in god. This is a brave gauntlet to throw down at the beginning of a film. I worried throughout that by setting itself up in this way, it could only disappoint in the end, either by becoming all about proselytizing a religious view, or by simply biting off too much topically.

At the end of the story, Pi relates a harrowing tale, one that was far less beautiful and far more traumatic. Rather than being trapped at sea with animals, he had been trapped with his family and an evil, cannibalistic cook.

(An earlier scene in the film becomes an important touchstone at this point, when that cook was shown to be a mean and miserly person. Gerard Depardieu's face was so memorable that even though he does not appear again, mention of the cook works to recall this scene. A fair bit of expert storytelling here.)

The cook kills his family in order to survive at sea; Pi is forced to watch his mother devoured by sharks. He makes up the images of the animals to stand in for these people. The hyena that so unceremoniously kills the monkey and the zebra on the lifeboat is the cook.

The conclusion is inescapable: "So you are the tiger?" the journalist asks. The tiger was a self-projection of Pi's. A way of making sense out of a reality his mind could not grasp in its shock and trauma. "Which of these two stories that I have made up, do you prefer?" Pi asks. "The one with the tiger," says the journalist.

Pi concludes: "So it is with God."

This is perhaps the best, simplest, and kindest treatment of the explanation for religion I have ever seen. What gives rise to the religious and mythmaking consciousness of humankind? Why do we desire it? Our desire for paradise is literally represented in the film by a magical island, the island that Pi finally arrives at after being driven to the depths of his being, after praying mightily to god to save him. Yet the island turns out to be poisonous. "What it gives during the day, it steals back by night." This is a singular and stunningly astute commentary on Pi's own religious motives: he was looking for Eden, and yet finally realized he had to leave it, that he was on his own. What religion purports to give on the one hand by way of comfort and explanation, it steals back on the other by weakening the mind and soul, making it dependent, leeching energy while it promises security. We must leave it or be slowly poisoned by our own fantasy.

The tiger walking away without a word of goodbye is heartbreaking because it is Pi's own former self, the one that he had to call upon in order to survive such an ordeal. The wild tiger, one with nature, fierce and able to brave anything, is gone now that Pi is back in civilization. But in another sense, this represents the grief that humanity in an age of enlightenment must face, as it sheds its religious illusions and moves to a higher plane of consciousness.

The fact that Ang Lee captured all of these themes in a simple story viewable by children is astounding. We hope this film garners many awards, as it deserves to do, and that Yann Martel also gets credit for telling such a remarkable tale. They have once more elevated storytelling to the art form it aspires to be.

Life of Pi helps us, ever so gently, to revise our view of our own religious stories, admitting as Pi Patel does that we love them and that we invented them because they are prefereable to the mundane and brutal reality we face. In this sense Pi's coming of age is something we must all go through. In doing so we will suffer. We will be brought to the edge, but there we can achieve a veracity and luminosity of self, represented by all the fiercest and most phosporescent images of this film. Like the whale in the ocean at night, we can see our soul before us, and truly possess its infinite beauty and strength.

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