Much of Ang Lee’s mystifying Life of Pi feels symbolic, and none more so then the premise; of a boy and a tiger trapped on the same boat, and his struggles to survive both the tiger and the myriad of trials at sea. He’s shipwrecked without an island, cast adrift in a sea that feels endless and oppressive, and with seemingly no hope of rescue. Sound like how we tend to feel at some point in our lives, huh?
But the tiger, given the name “Richard Parker” due to a small mix up, is something many of us can barely imagine us dealing with. A beast who’s CGI belies comparison, portrayed as both an imminent threat to young Pi’s (Suraj Sharma) survival, and a companion whose care and needs give him a purpose in the face of the unknown. To be trapped with the tiger, it would seem, represents the challenges of the spiritual and material world, made flesh and hungry, eager to devour us up.
The term “magical-realism” is often used to describe narratives which remain rooted into the real world, yet offer inexplicable sights or devices which create a sense of distance in the reader, and in Life of Pi these come in the form of awe-inspiring visuals that express both the beauty and savagery that we find in both nature and life itself. In this way it works both as a fantasy that is largely allegorical, and a spiritual journey for it’s main character, who narrates it years later to a journalist with the caveat that it would “Make him believe in God”
One could easily doubt this claim, but doubt is essential for faith to exist, and as the movie shows us, young Pi has all the reason to be spiritually lost after a difficult childhood and a demanding father. The height of this occurs when his family sets out to sail from their native Pondicherry India and Pi is the only survivor after their cargo ship to sinks (In a rush of pounding storm and crashing waves that is like a ballet version of the Titanic’s descent) Except for a couple circus animals, and that fearsome Bengal tiger.
Through a series of gorgeous images, including a jaw dropping humpback whale that surfaces and then drops like the hammer of god, and a dizzying swarm of flying fish that are more like flying daggers, the film conveys loss, isolation, fury, and tranquility as Pi drifts through an ocean that seems to reflect and abstract all his struggles with his faith and place in the world. As we see in the present however, Pi will later value this time and reflect on what he has learned in a way that will challenge the relationship between truth and personal revelation.
If the film’s overwhelming strengths are its visuals and conveying of spiritual truth, then its weak side is the actor used to show them. Though Suraj Sharma is believable in his different stages of desperation and strength, he never quite gets to the point where you really want to root for him, due in part perhaps to the unreality of his situation. His relationship with Richard Parker is well documented, but just can’t achieve the same poignancy as a real human would.
Some may be a little put off by the way Life Of Pi seems to backtrack from it’s fantastic narrative and create the classic “ambiguous” ending, but when you take into account Pi’s final statement, it really is essential to the movie’s point about faith. It asks the question; “Is what we take from our experiences more important then the experiences themselves?” and for many people stranded on their own boats in the seas of doubt, this question will provide motivation for them to stand up and face down their own tigers.