Ang Lee is one of those directors with an eclectic background of films; from edgy to iconoclastic to romantic to suspense, his films run the gamut of emotions and genres, but always with a unique angle that emphasizes the humanity of the protagonist. “Sense and Sensibility” added heart to the classic drawing room drama; “The Ice Storm” explored morality among contemporary suburbanites; “Ride With the Devil” is a favorite among Civil War buffs; “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” reimagined martial arts movies; “Brokeback Mountain” dared to broach the subject of homosexuality. But with “Life of Pi,” the venerable director may have reached the pinnacle of artistic achievement.
The story opens with a writer struggling with his art. He is told to call on Pi Patel, who can tell him the most spectacular tale ever, one that will rekindle the writer’s belief in God. Pi narrates the story of his early life as the child of a zookeeper in India, including the humorous origins of his name, as well as his introduction to and perspectives on three great faiths: Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. Finances then compel Pi’s father to sell the zoo and emigrate to Canada. En route the ship sinks in a storm and Pi finds himself alone in a lifeboat with Richard Parker, the Bengal Tiger from the zoo. Drifting across the Pacific, Pi’s trinity of faith keeps him alive as his thirst, hunger, despair, and isolation drive him to the cusp of madness. What was real and what was imagined? How has God provided for Pi amidst the tragedy of shipwreck? These are the questions answered by this memorable journey.
The cinematography must claim first billing in this luxuriously visual film. Rich colors leap off the screen, and the images are composed brilliantly, evoking the emotions felt by the characters. Classical composition is a lost art these days as directors and cinematographers focus on extreme close-ups of their stars and full shots are merely designed to garner wows with explosions and the sensation of movement. But cinematographer Claudio Miranda and Ang Lee have collaborated to create awe inspiring shots depicting loneliness, wonder, delusional insanity, despair, terror—and amidst all the tragedy of the shipwreck, hope.
While the cinematography justly receives its accolades, it is the story itself that is mesmerizing. It addresses philosophy and religion subtly. The very method of telling the story drives the plot. By having the unnamed writer listen to the story as told by the middle-aged Pi with a jumping timeline, we are cleverly introduced to characters and their personalities, adding dialogue to what might otherwise be a tedious tale. In the movie “Castaway,” actor Tom Hanks did a great job, and the cinematography was wonderful, but the strictly linear plotline bogged down the story for long periods of time. “Life of Pi” on the other hand, injects movement into the story and life in the narration, a difficult feat, cleverly pulled off by screenwriter Daniel Magee (“Finding Neverland”) and novelist Yann Martel.
The warmth of the characters comes alive partly through the deft direction of Lee, but also by the incredibly likable performances of Gautam Belur as the precocious five year old Pi, Ayush Tandon, as the inquisitive Pi at twelve, Suraj Jharma as the faithful Pi during the shipwreck, and Irrfan Khan as the reflective middle-aged Pi. Adil Hussain and Tabu as Pi’s parents are warm and loving, and Rafe Spall is appropriately befuddled as the writer seeking a story. A cameo by Gerard Depardieu as the cantankerous cook aboard the doomed ship is a surprise.
“Life of Pi” is a terrific film that should not be missed.