Director Ang Lee creates an Academy Award winning motion picture about every five years or so: Sense and Sensibility (1995), Crouching Tiger – Hidden Dragon (2000), and Brokeback Mountain (2005). All great movies, and we’ll have to forget and forgive disappointments like Hulk (2003). His latest entry is Life of Pi, based on the critically acclaimed book with the same name, released in 2001, by Yann Martel.
Life of Pi starts with a reporter who visits Pi Patel, an older Indian man, to hear the story which made Pi into a true believer. The story then alternates between the dialog of the two men and longer depictions of Pi’s life as a young boy and teenager. He is revealed to have a deep interest in religion, to the dismay of his father. This theme repeats throughout Life of Pi, and the film can be seen as giving a philosophical perspective on religion. Nevertheless, there is also a certain lightness to the story, and humor is often used to prevent the narrative from becoming pedantic, particularly in the beginning.
Most of the film revolves around Pi and a tiger, humorously named Richard Parker, who plays a pivotal role in nearly all turning points. While I did not read the book myself, people who did commented that it tended to drag in places, particularly those long moments at sea. The film seems to overcome this, as the story keeps moving forward at a satisfying pace. This is further aided by the beautifully depicted ocean and its inhabitants. In general much of the narrative revolves around two characters, and it is impressive how the filmmakers manage to bind the viewers to these characters emotionally, a set-up which is crucial to be able to relate to the film’s climax.
Although Life of Pi stands on its own, there are clear influences from many other films and stories, particularly the excellent Cast Away and the biblical story of Noah’s Ark. The film does not rely on a ‘big-name’ cast, a good choice, as there are few familiar faces to distract the viewer from the narrative. Debutant Suraj Sharma gives an impressive performance in the lead role as the adolescent Pi, as does Irfan Khan playing the older Pi.
To the film’s credit, I find that putting Life of Pi in some definite category is difficult. Let me conclude with: it is a film that makes you think about reality and religion, without being pedantic about it. Which is a remarkable achievement. Indeed, I am still pondering about its implications. I would not be surprised if this becomes the big winner at the 2013 Academy Awards.