"LIFE OF PI"
Based upon the novel by Yann Martel
Screenplay Written by David Magee
Directed by Ang Lee
**** (four stars)
"Life Of Pi," Director Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's best selling novel is a magical, magnificent, majestic feast for the eyes and the spirit. Beyond that, I think that this film is not only one of 2012's highest achievements, it is also Ang Lee's masterpiece. Much has been said about the unfilmmable quality of the novel, a book that I have not read and one which I have picked up and placed back down over and again for many years. But, I am here to tell you that when--that's right, when--you witness and receive "Life Of Pi," you will know, without question, that you have been placed in the hands of a storytelling master working at the very peak of his powers as he has created the very type of movie that is very much of its time yet a timeless spiritual odyssey to revisit over and again. Oscar had better be paying attention because for my money, this film should be not only be nominated for Best Picture and Best Director but also in the categories for Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and most obviously, for Best Special Effects. Any potential awards bestowed over this film are more than deserved but beyond the fanfare, "Life Of Pi" is cinematic artistry at its finest.
"Life Of Pi" is structured with the front and back framework of a conversation held between an unnamed Writer (Rafe Spall) looking for a new story to tell after an aborted project has taken the creative wind from his sails and Piscine (pronounced "pissing") Molitor Patel nicknamed "Pi" (played by the wonderful Irrfan Khan, so extraordinary on HBO's "In Treatment"), the 50ish husband and Father of two who indeed possesses the story that will alter the Writer's perceptions and overall sense of spirituality.
As the tale begins, we are introduced to Pi's family and upbringing which occurs near a French section of India and on the grounds of a zoo his Father, Santosh Patel (an excellent Adil Hussain). We learn the origin of Pi's name, his early life in school and the beginnings of his spiritual quest which leads him to embrace Hinduism, Christianity and Islam equally, much to Santosh's chagrin, an atheist who would prefer Pi to live his life through reason and logic, especially when it comes to Pi's empathetic nature towards the dangerous zoo animals most notably a Bengalese Tiger named "Richard Parker."
By Pi's teen years (as he is now played sensationally by Suraj Sharma), his religious devotion and openhearted worldview has been somewhat overtaken by restless teenage angst, emotions that are further complicated when Santosh declares that due to political unrest, the family will relocate to Canada from India via Japanese freighter, and they will also sell all of their zoo animals.
Not long after their departure from India, the freighter is caught in a tremendous storm at sea and Pi is accidentally tossed from the ship into a lifeboat alongside an orangutan, a zebra, a vicious hyena and Richard Parker. The remainder of the film details Pi's struggle to survive floating at sea, the relationship he forges with the animals on board, most especially the tiger who is growing hungrier by the day and the ultimate strength of his spiritual faith which is being severely tested each moment he is adrift in an unforgiving world.
By now, I am certain that all of you have either seen commercials or trailers advertising "Life Of Pi," and from seeking just a few scant moments, it is obvious to anyone watching that the film is a visual astonishment. Having seen the entire experience, I can assure you that Ang Lee has created one of the best visual achievements of the year. As you also know, I am dead set against the gimmick of 3D and I did see this film in 2D. That said, and as I felt with Martin Scorsese's extraordinary "Hugo" from last winter, Ang Lee is has created a film going experience that seems to lend itself to the 3D technology in a most organic, story driven and artistic way.
As the bulk of the film exists upon the high seas, the boat and a small makeshift life raft that is tethered to the boat, the expansive nature of the story gives Lee and his creative team a tremendous amount of visual material to play with making a world that feels as if it has emerged from a dream state or hyper-real fantasy. The world of "Life Of Pi" looks very familiar but also not quite as it also serves to represent Pi's shifting level of sanity and overall spiritual crisis. While the vistas of the skies, sun, moon, stars and ocean life are intoxicating, I have to make special mention of the animals, especially Richard Parker the tiger, as the CGI and animatronic effects are some of the finest I have had the pleasure to witness on screen. The tiger looks and feels very, very real and something that truly exists in the same physical space as Pi himself. Not for an instant did it seem that a flesh and blood Pi was on a boat with a cartoon tiger and thankfully not, as a gaffe like that would have upended the entire motion picture tragically.
Since we are given a front row seat into the spiritual and survivalist quest of Pi, and most crucially, his relationship with the tiger, there are simply not enough words to praise the spectacular work of Suraj Sharma in the title role. Sharma possesses an incredible physicality for the role as he is constantly in and out of the water and on and off of the boat and life raft and so on over and over again. And yet, this particular trait is only surpassed by his wrenching spiritual yearning, which I would gather is designed to mirror the inner search that all of us have embarked upon in one way or another as we exist upon this Earth. Suraj Sharma's entire presence is one of invitation and empathy, the perfect combination an actor should have for a role and film like this one. I seriously hope that the unfamiliarity of his name does not stop him from being recognized for his towering work in this beautiful performance.
I have made much of the spiritual essence of this film and I must say that Ang Lee's "Life Of Pi" belongs in the same class of recent films like Terrence Malick's "The Tree Of Life," Behn Zeitlin's outstanding "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" and even The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer's deeply ambitious, visually gorgeous, sincerely presented yet not entirely successful, "Cloud Atlas" as they all use the language of cinema to explore and address nothing less than the meaning of life.
As with those aforementioned films, "Life Of Pi" plunges us into themes of inter-connectivity, and the symbiotic nature between humans, animals and the environment but for me, Ang Lee takes an even bolder step as this is a film that strongly wants us to witness the interlocked nature between spirituality and science, reason and logic. Yes, dear readers, you read that correctly. Despite the adult Pi's notions that his story will make the Writer believe in God, "Life Of Pi" is not a film that is designed to split us all into particular theological camps and nor is it presented as dogma. It is one meant to unite us all in thought and feeling as the story of Pi's survival rests in the complete joining of the tangible with the metaphysical. Even those of you who view yourselves as atheists should feel welcome as atheism is indeed a way one makes sense of life and the universe. The "Life Of Pi" is representative of all of our lives. It is not a film with easy answers or Hallmark sentiments and nor should it be as the film takes on a more ambiguous quality in its final sections which essentially forces the Writer and the audience to think about everything we have witnessed and heard and decide for ourselves what to believe, even though we are presented with few unequivocal facts and so much of it cannot be ultimately proven. And yet, Ang Lee never for even one moment preaches or proselytizes. He beautifully enchants and enraptures as his hugely entertaining film also works as visual poetry.
While Ang Lee has always been a journeyman of a filmmaker as he has tackled a variety of subjects, individuals and locales with films like "The Wedding Banquet" (1993), "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman" (1994), "The Ice Storm" (1997), the extraordinary "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000), the unfairly panned "Hulk" (2003) and "Brokeback Mountain" (2005). Yet what has nearly bound all of his films together, in one way or another, has been Lee's theme of repression and the effects of that repression upon the soul. With "Life Of Pi," I truly appreciate the willingness Lee had with relinquishing that constant theme for something even grander, even more universal and downright cosmic but not in a "hippie-dippy" fashion despite the at times psychedelic visuals on display.
Even beyond that and at its finest, Lee with "Life Of Pi," has fashioned an ode to the act, art and artistry of storytelling, and how stories, in and of themselves, are essential forms of connective tissue that bond us to each other, all living things, the world in which we live and even our deepest inner selves. "Life Of Pi" is a remarkable, thrilling, and even monumental work of art that wishes to simultaneously dazzle the eyes, invigorate the mind and completely satiate the soul. In a year where many veteran filmmakers have been pushing themselves to create better and better films, Ang Lee has truly soared.
It may be a bit early for me to fully announce my favorite film of the year, since there are still quite a number of pictures I wish to see and especially as for most of this year, my number one pick has been Writer/Director Lorene Scafaria's "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World." But, as I ruminate over all that I experienced and felt with Ang Lee's "Life Of Pi," I am not certain what could stand taller than this one.
We'll just have to see...