Thursday, January 3, 2013

Life of Pi

Note - Although I don't feel this piece gives anything substantial away, it does discuss the film as a whole. Those who simply care about not having details of it's story revealed, be aware of potential spoilers.

Life of Pi seems to be the story of a man on a spiritual journey through life towards discovering what the concept of god actually means to him. I say the “concept of god” because the film never defines him as anything more and really, what more than a concept can god ever be to the moral man anyway?

I think calling Life of Pi a spiritual journey is about right. It’s certainly not a religious one in so much as that to use the word religion implies that the film preaches a single way of thinking on the way to expressing a single point or meaning or method of interpretation.

It doesn’t. Like its hero, it keeps its mind fully open to all possibilities. Exploring many different religions on the way towards some sort of spiritual enlightenment is how the young Indian boy Pi spends most of his childhood. Of course he does. He is scolded by his father, being told that to believe in everything is essentially to believe in nothing. In many ways, the boy’s father is right. But you try telling that to a boy who's circle can't be squared.

It’s testament then to the true power and mystique behind spirituality that Pi doesn’t find enlightenment through one religion or one idea of god, although he gets to know many, but through getting trapped at sea on a raft with a hungry Bengali tiger named Richard Parker.

For Pi, like everyone who was born with the power of a mind that can think for itself, it is only trapped at sea, under these circumstances, that he is able to look at life and actually see god. That’s the story he tells to a Montreal writer who has come looking to fill his creative well up with inspiration after being told of a story that will make him believe in god.

So how does Pi find enlightenment from surviving the tiger and the shipwreck that takes his entire family and leaves him stranded at sea? The same way anyone finds enlightenment through any religion: by reflecting back on the stories that have shaped it and finding meaning beyond their existence as literal objects. Richard Parker, upon looking back, isn’t just a tiger; he’s the main symbol at the centre of a journey towards something spiritual. Is the story true? At the end of the day does it really matter one way or the other? You can change the size of the circle, but the numbers always come out the same.

Richard Parker is that mythical being that is both the one thing threatening to end the life of Pi, while also the one thing in life that keeps him struggling to survive. He’s the yin and the yang. And so god sacrificed his only son so that we could be forgiven of our sins. Such cruelty wrapped in such selflessness. Opposites that are opposed and yet one all at the same time. That's every idea we have of god isn't it? Form does not exist without function, good without evil, light without dark, big without small, right without wrong. And so everything in life goes…

Pi is initially disappointed when he finally arrives safely at land only to find Richard Parker, his true connection to god, disappear into the wilderness without even so much as a look back to acknowledge the spiritual awakening that has been exchanged between them.  Maybe Richard Parker wasn’t god after all. At the end of the film he’s no more than just another tiger. And yet isn’t god supposed to be in everything? If that’s true it must also be true that he’s in nothing as well? Yin and yang. And so God sacrificed his only son…

The circle has no beginning or ending. It cannot be squared. It simply goes on like this forever.

And so, by the end of the film, so beautifully brought to life in stunning 3D by Ang Lee and his creative team from the bestselling novel of the same name, Pi has told two stories that are both the same. One is a story of beauty and one of cruelty, but both of enlightenment and awakening. One of them is true. This inspires the film’s most important question: “Which one do you prefer?” The choice is ours. We’re given the power to make it every day.

It’s a question we could all stop to ask ourselves every once in a while. Maybe Richard Parker was God? Maybe god can be found in everything after all? Maybe Life of Pi is its own spiritual experience; a film that, like the number pi itself, reaches transcendence?  And then the final credits roll reminding us that, no, Life of Pi is only a movie, based on a book, created by fellow men and women, no different from anyone else, created as a way to make a living.

They are both, for whatever it's worth, true. Which way of looking at it do you prefer?


  1. Your phrase "created as a way to make a living" has the same strange dichotomy the rest of the movie has (and makes me wish I'd written it). Yes. Yes it is. Always a pleasure to read you, sir.

  2. Very nice piece. I almost don't even mind that you made me wait three weeks for it.

    This is a strange movie for me. While I think that all the themes you identify are in fact there, and explored somewhat powerfully, and also that this is a nearly incomparable technical achievement, I didn't feel the emotional catharsis at the end of this movie that I wanted and expected to feel. I think some of that may have to do with the clumsiness of Rafe Spall as the Montreal writer (though I do like him in other projects, namely Anonymous). But that seems like a pretty small part of the movie to blame my somewhat "meh" impression of it on. Sometimes it's just that way -- there are movies we love despite ample evidence that we shouldn't, and movies we don't love despite ample evidence that we should. There's another yin and yang for you.

  3. May have been a bit sloppy in terms of writing, but the visuals are breathtaking and something that will definitely have your eyes advert on the screen the whole time. Good review Mike.

  4. Yojimbo, you read very carefully. You're a king among men.

    Vance - I hear you and more or less agree. I won't be running out to revisit this film any time, if ever. Although it's ideas are abundant and moving, that still doesn't take away from the fact that you need to sit for over 2 hours mostly watching a man in a raft with a tiger. It was the same problem with Cast Away, throw a man on an island with no one to engage in dialogue with and there isn't much drama there. There isn't much drama in Life of Pi either. Thankfully I found things in it to connect with personally, that, as can be seen by this piece, I related to above and beyond the film itself. Call it Yin and Yang again.