The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Little Book of Pi

Written by John Bleasdale.

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There's nothing wrong with Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. Taken from Yann Martel’s novel, it’s a magical realist tale with the emphasis on the magical, but keeping a sneaky toe in the real world. The plot itself is a whimsical elevator pitch that would grab a studio executive who believes Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance contains both literary merit and deep life-changing truths. The technological artistry of the film has been rightly praised, although the marketing of the film as ‘the next Avatar’ smacked more of publicists stumped on how to sell a seemingly minimalist narrative strand to holiday theatre-goers. There are some wonderful 3D set ups, and for once the 3D seems to have a specific function, i.e. to see that we are literally taken in. But this is my problem. There’s nothing wrong with Life of Pi except for more or less everything.

The whole film is a tall tale told to a Canadian by the eponymous hero of the story, played as an adult by Irrfan Khan and for the greater part of the film as a young man by the excellent Suraj Sharma. The novelist himself is played by Rafe Spall with disconcerting politeness. He seems so happy to be in an Ang Lee film, he doesn’t want to knock anything over. There’s something a little bit too instantly dewy eyed about the writer as he samples Pi’s cooking and asks to be told a story that will make him ‘believe in God’. The creaking woodenness of these scenes could charitably be ascribed to Lee's wish to contrast banal middle class comfort to the exotic tale that is to come, but there’s some sly manipulation going on. We - as an audience - have already been inscribed into the picture and our reactions and our ultimate decisions will be made for us by the respectful and largely unquestioning writer.

The film begins with the story of the young Pi. As a child he is relatively privileged: his father owns a hotel and has travelled the world. He is a fabulist who tries to talk his way out of a piss poor name Piscine Molitar Patel, with partial success. His attempt to remake the world will extend itself to his quest to collect religions. However, what begins as a multicultural fantasy of all these contending religions really all being about - you know - the same God will end as a paean to credulity. Even at the start, we are geared towards sympathizing with Pi’s quest as each religion is visually beautified, whereas rationality is linked to savage off-screen violence. Christianity is introduced via a Jesus figure from central casting and Islam is a magic box, a setting of soothing serenity. The film is careful for us never to see other congregants or believers: Pi discovers Christianity in an empty church, at the mosque worshippers appear in long shot. Pi's father as a secular rationalist is the spoilsport, showing his young son a goat being killed by a tiger to illustrate the real way of the world. This knowledge will come in handy later, but he is in stark contrast to the benign gentle religions that Pi has pocketed. With religion cleaned of ‘other people’, the film can safely ignore the faith-based massacres and wars that are contemporary to the story, as well as set aside the mutual intolerance of these religions and how Pi’s potpourri approach would be met with hostility if not out and out violence by his fellow worshippers. But this view of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam is, in its superficiality, a conscious non-understanding of their theological underpinnings. Despite the well-meaning and laudable declarations of interfaith organisations, when it comes down to it, these religions are mutually incompatible and cannot possibly be seen as providing different approaches to the same God(s) without disregarding central beliefs.

But this is a fable, some might argue. But the fable is really supposed to start on the life raft. It doesn’t. It is right there from the beginning. And the popularity of the idea of fables in serious art also needs to be examined. The use of the magical, the championing of the imaginary and visionary is all very well, but we should always bear in mind the negatives associated with the fabulous, the tendency to platitudes, the truisms dressed as depth, the incoherence, the anti-rational alongside the irrational.

But to move on. From the gilded memories of Pi’s childhood, we are launched onto the oceans of maturity. Pi’s family decides to move and they with their zoo are transported across the ocean. However, when a storm hits the ship goes down and Pi's family are lost. The beauty of the spectacle belies the emotional loss it is supposed to represent. This is death as a wonderful thing, an awe-inspiring set piece, comparable to the callous rollercoaster ride of James Cameron’s contemptible Titanic (1997). The story of Pi’s survival, his precarious existence, the death of the orang-utan, the danger of Richard Parker - the tiger is comically named, also - and the wonders of the open sea are all evoked with a mastery that confirms Ang Lee as a fantastically proficient filmmaker. (This isn’t the first time Lee has made a beautiful film with a deplorable message - see Lust, Caution [2007]). Throughout this section, the film is genuinely compelling, except when they land on a CGI island of meerkats and such obvious symbolism and fakery stick out like a fourth dimension. That aside we are with Pi and Richard Parker, despite the odd glitch, for the ride.

But then we’re told the whole thing is bollocks. Back in Canada, which now stands for the kind of place fabulists go to die, Pi tells us another version of what might have happened, suggesting the story we just saw was a way of coping with the brutal reality of what actually happened. Of course, this isn’t a straight out admission. Indeed, reality might have just been the story that seemed more credible to the investigators, another genre. Neither story explains why the ship sank, Pi tells us, in his ‘a-ha!’ moment. But the reason the ship sank was never an issue in the film. It’s a red-herring. How would a passenger even be expected to know? The Japanese insurance men demand a more credible story, not because it’s more brutal, but because it is more credible. Like Pi’s father, they are a pair of cold fish, these rational men. And yet even they will be won over in the final triumph of lyrical bullshit.

Those who hear this story - the spectator as well as the Canadian, Pi and even ultimately the Japanese investigators - are all supposed to prefer the CGI version. Ang Lee is joining a movement in popular Hollywood cinema that champions the idea of the elaborately told untruth. Christopher Nolan also points out the social efficacy and emotional satisfaction of the well-told lie in The Dark Knight (2008), Inception (2010) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). In Life of Pi, the well told lie is bafflingly justified - ‘So it is with God’. In a sense, the film is about the need for a comforting religious narrative, but utterly ignores the fact that that is not what religion is for. It is the last gasp defence - it comforts the sick and the elderly - and so the film manages to be both insultingly dismissive of rational humanism and reductive to the far grander ambitions of any and all religious belief.

And then there’s the other film, the one not peopled by symbolic animals. What really happened? That film wouldn’t warm our hearts perhaps but cinema isn’t Linus’ security blanket, or at least shouldn’t be. Instead we are left with the cinematic equivalent of the Little Book of Calm, pocket sized, beguilingly attractive, easily digestible and utterly wrong.

This article was published on February 15, 2013.