Life of Pi

The film of the best selling novel, Life of Pi, may contain plenty of action and adventure, but its central preoccupation is with a spiritual journey.
Laura Cotta Ramosino | 9 January 2013
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The young Pi grows up in Pondicherry, in French India, among the animals of the zoo his family runs. He is driven by a deeply religious curiosity that causes him to delve not only into his own religion, Hinduism, but also into Christianity and Islam. His family decides to migrate to Canada by a freight ship accompanied by some of their animals. A storm in the middle of the Pacific wrecks the ship and Pi, on a lifeboat, is the only survivor along with Richard Parker... a Bengal Tiger!

His quest to survive the waves is a journey of spirituality...

Visually impressive and profoundly poetic, inspired by the worldwide best-selling novel, this movie is not just a story about survival (some compare Life of Pi to Cast Away, starring Tom Hanks), but most of all a spiritual and metaphysical meditation about man and his relationship with God. In the eye of Pi, God has many faces: the faces of the many Hindu gods, the face of the sacrificing Son of the Christian religion and the mysterious and powerful face of Allah.

The young Pi approaches the different manifestations of the divine while his friends spend their time collecting Superheroes. Even a believer can understand Pi’s atheist father’s concern as he tries to contain his son’s instinctive syncretism while teaching him to use reason.

But Pi will be saved by his passion for religion and his willingness to open his heart and mind to God. Pi knows Richard Parker well: when he still was an innocent child, Pi had wanted to make friends with the animal and his rationalist father had chosen a harsh but effective way to show him the workings of the world. Pi knows that it will not be possible to make friends with the tiger. But surprisingly, in the tiger he finds much more than a friend. Richard Parker becomes a door that opens an immense secret that begins to establish contact with him -- a sign of divine presence that acts in mysterious, often violent ways, but ultimately always pushing him towards his destiny.

Ang Lee directs the movie with a sure hand that alternates moments of intense action (unfortunately Richard Parker can swim and Pi has to use all his wits not to be eaten, and yet when he has the chance he is unable to abandon the tiger to almost certain death) with others filled with contemplation of beauty and spiritual meditation.

The actor who plays the main character in the movie is a newcomer and the tiger is a CGI-technology reproduction. However, if you manage to become involved in the depth of the spiritual quest, these two elements will not compromise your appreciation of the film.

The value of Pi’s "parable" is expressed many times, and yet, hidden within, there is a certain ambiguity that is favored by the postmodern and cosmopolitan mentality of Hollywood "spirituality". This fits perfectly with Ang Lee’s style and vision.

In the middle of the Storm, Pi, after loosing his family, cries out to God: "What more do you want?"

For Pi (and maybe also for some contemporary individuals, for whom religion is reduced to a product to be chosen from the shelves of a megastore) religion is probably no more than stories that men tell each other to be in touch with something that you can only meet but not explain (the writer of this film also wrote the story for Neverland, which had a similar approach); a reality you can only submit totally to, and offer yourself to. For this reason in the middle of the storm Pi shouts to God that now he has taken everything from him, what does He want more?

Neither the story told to the ship’s insurance company, nor Pi’s story can explain the reason why Pi’s family had to die, but at least the second one will probably be appreciated even by God Himself (whoever He may be).

This ambiguity is both a strength and a weakness of Life of Pi, a film that has achieved a great success even in the East. Perhaps, to appreciate this movie, the only thing to do is to watch it in the same spirit it has been crafted: focusing on the wonder and terror before the beauty and ferocity of creation that can wound and kill, but yet holds in itself room for compassion, and the supreme and deep bond that ties each and every soul together: human, animal and divine.

Life of Pi may not be suitable for all viewers. It contains adult themes and violence.

Laura Cotta Ramosino has been working since 2005 as a story editor for Rai Uno (National Italian Broadcaster). She also contributes to different magazines and web-sites about cinema and television.


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