Review: Mother Nature - The Queen on God's Chess Board in 'Life of Pi'


Yann Martel’s bestseller “Life of Pi” was the hipster accessory of the mid 2000s and after receiving multiple book awards, it received its biggest honor becoming a junior hight reading staple. So this story of a spiritually seeking 16-year-old at sea with a wild tiger, ceased its life as a sort of ironic kid’s book for adults and became a book for kids ironically nearing adulthood.

Surprisingly, director Ang Lee found ways to make this allegory of faith into something accessible to anyone**, so even if you’re immune to moments of existential inquiry this is still a damn pretty film. The 3D spectacle is its own transcendent experience: when the ship carrying Pi’s family capsizes, zoo animals stream from its bowels like a reverse Noah’s Arc.

As a child in India, Pi (Suraj Sharma) sought God at a cathedral, at temples and ashrams; his seeking was cautious but his father eventually demanded he choose one faith, lest he develop an unsteady character. So when that Old Testament sized tragedy separates Pi from his kin, his becomes a story of spiritual peril writ large—he’s at sea in wonder and danger at once. Poetically, he has a map and compass, and while he can locate major landmasses he can't locate himself.

Pi’s surroundings are as glorious as they are hostile: the glowing jellyfish flotilla is an image that could challenge anyone’s indifference to God, but it’s followed with near fatal demonstration of power. Pi’s survival opens doors to wonder but the dues are steep. We're never just swept up into something magic, there's always a caustic threat alongside the beauty.

Ang Lee is less interested in expounding on Pi’s inner struggle than in doing for us what Pi’s “uncle” tells a writer (Rafe Spall) he can do: tell you a story that will make you believe in God. It’s silly poetry and it’s as sweet as believing in Santa anew, which is likely the point. Without respect for the horror and the triumph together, the journey would be a destructive one. Perhaps this makes grace look like common sense, but without compromising this parable to cartoonishness, Life of Pi fosters belief, and demands not what you put your faith in—that’s your feast or folly anyway.

**Surprisingly appropriate for older kids, though it features a good bit of peril. (Pi is on a boat with a tiger, after all.)

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