Yann Martel’s fantastical folk parable about faith and spirituality, “Life of Pi,” makes the journey to the big screen more or less intact, a meditative Ang Lee film with many of the same virtues and shortcomings of the novel.
It’s an inscrutable morality tale for much of its length that explains itself, rather too overtly (like the novel) in the end, as if the author figures we need help jumping from inscrutable to scrutable. But its pleasures are undeniable and its mysteries rewarding to contemplate. And in Lee’s hands, a seemingly unfilmable fairy tale comes to life.
A survival-at-sea story is framed within the conversation of a frustrated novelist (Rafe Spall) who has been sent to meet a man (Irrfan Khan) who endured 227 days adrift in a lifeboat. Their meeting has been given quite the build-up. The novelist has been told this man’s tale is “a story that would make me believe in God.”
But Pi’s autobiography is too magical, far-fetched and “literary” to be believed.
Take the character’s name: an Indian boy, raised in a zoo, named “Piscine” after a favorite relative’s love of swimming pools. The precocious child endures profane teasing about his name just long enough to invent his own nickname. He is “Pi,” like that magical mathematical constant, and his way of making sure that the name sticks is one of the film’s funnier indulgences.
Pi grows up in 1950s India, a brilliant, curious child whose curiosity ranges from religions — he dabbles in Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism — to the animals in his father’s menagerie.
“Animals have souls,” he insists to his father. “I have seen it in their eyes.”
Pi is a committed vegetarian who reaches young adulthood only through the intervention of his no-nonsense father, a man who preaches that “religion is darkness” and warns against expecting to have a meeting of the minds with the zoo’s resident Bengal tiger — Richard Parker. The tiger would surely eat him, no matter how kind he is to it.
That is put to the test when the family sells the zoo and the ship they and the animals are on sinks in the deepest corner of the Pacific. Pi (Suraj Sharma) finds himself on the lone lifeboat, stranded with an injured zebra, a mourning orangutan, a crazed hyena — and Richard Parker.
Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”) manages to make this odd ark convincing, thanks to a seamless blending of real animals and digitally-tamed ones. The boat is just big enough to hide most of its inhabitants long enough for each to make an entrance. And there is just enough gear — food, water, life jackets — for Pi to keep his distance from the two critters who will surely kill him when starvation sets in.
Special effects render the barren, glassy sea into a dreamland of illuminated jellyfish, serendipitous flying fish, overly-playful whales, sharks that are scarier than the tiger and just enough food to keep the boy alive and to keep the peace with the tiger. No matter how dire circumstances turn, Lee finds playful and mystical touches to animate a fairly static story.
Pi has a lot of piety to fall back on for this ordeal. The Buddhist in him grieves at having to kill to stay alive, and he refuses to do in the tiger, even when the opportunity arises. He turns his eyes skyward and prays, “God, I give myself to you, whatever comes.”
There is a tendency among those from outside India to confer guru status on stories there, a cliche the novel embraces and that Lee is not above falling into. Lee also must return, again and again, to the act of storytelling. Khan (“A Mighty Heart,” “The Namesake,” last summer’s “Amazing Spider-Man”) is an interesting actor, but these static storytelling scenes play like the last third of a sermon that’s gone on too long.
Still, the cryptic, spiritual nature of the story — the metaphorical treatment of faith — blesses “Pi” with at least a hint of the vision-quest gravitas that the character, the author and the filmmaker were going for. Lee, whose last film grasped at but never quite got the “moment” of Woodstock, is on much surer ground with this magical realism, this floating, seemingly unfilmable parable for a spiritually adrift age.