“Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for people who have been there.” I know it’s been used a lot before, but I just like that quote. And for Piscine Patel, the protagonist of “Life of Pi”, it couldn’t be more true.
Except for Piscine, religion is all around him his whole life, by his own choosing. We’re introduced to him as an adult played by Irrfan Khan who has been visited by a novelist who wants to hear his life story because he’s heard it will “make me believe in God”. He’s going to write about Piscine’s life, and wants to get the details. Piscine, or Pi, begins with childhood. We learn that his name came from a swimming pool in France called Piscine Moliter. Unfortunately for Piscine, however, the name sounds exactly like the act of urinating. So Piscine is ridiculed so much that he shortens his name to Pi; at school, he demonstrates his name by writing it on a blackboard with all the numbers he can think of, which goes on and on and on.
As he grows up, he disappoints his father by following 3 different religions. He is born and raised Hindu; but he becomes fascinated with Jesus Christ and decides to also be a Christian. To round things out, he takes up being a Muslim as well. His father believes he has spread his beliefs too thin, and by believing in everything, he doesn’t actually believe in anything because he does not choose a path.
A path chooses him, though. His father owns a zoo, and after a few life lessons about animals are taught to Pi, they find out that they must leave their home in India and move to Canada. They board a Japanese freighter and after a vicious storm, the ship sinks. Pi is the only human survivor; he is accompanied on a raft by an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (which has an amusing backstory to go along with it.)
Pi is now on the opposite end of what he grew up in. He is basically the zoo animal now. The hyena taunts him, the zebra, and the orangutan, eventually killing them. All Pi can do is watch in horror, because he cannot attack the hyena himself. Then, Richard Parker leaps out from under the tarp in the boat and attacks and kills the hyena. With it being just the tiger and Pi, the two have to grow to tolerate each other’s presence. Due to, least of all, a language barrier, this doesn’t appear to be an easy task.
But Pi is able to feed the tiger, and write about his experiences day by day in a journal. He survives by eating biscuits provided by the survival kit on the boat, along with cans of water.
Things actually seem to be going in Pi’s favor, until another storm hits. This shipwrecks Pi and the tiger onto a mysterious island that seems to eat any inhabitants except the abundance of meerkats that permeate the whole island. There are little pools of water that Pi finds he can drink from. But at night, the island takes on a different kind of form. It’s almost like a giant venus fly trap. The island itself is in the shape of a person. And it seems to be cannibalistic. Pi finds a human tooth in a blooming flower.
Pi is eventually rescued when he finds the Mexican shoreline. He must tell his story to the company that owned the ship that sank. They of course do not believe Pi’s fantastical story about the island or the animals. Richard Parker disappeared after they found land, not that the tiger was going to tell a more convincing story. Pi then tells another story, one that is starkly different from the one we’ve just seen. He tells them that the cook on the ship, a sailor, and Pi’s mother were all in the boat. But the cook went mad and killed the sailor and his mother, and then Pi killed the cook. He tells the story convincingly, almost to the point where we as an audience are wondering if what we saw was just a cute allegory of a much darker, more horrific story of survival.
And that is exactly where the movie’s theme lies. In the religions that Pi learns about, they’re full of stories. Stories that Pi believes. And in these stories, he finds faith in God. Not God as in the Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Hindu God, but God in all things. When his faith is tested, God shows himself through the experiences that Pi speaks of. Not a religious God, but a spiritual one.
Ang Lee’s direction is superb, and the palette of colors is amazing to watch. Of course, these colors mean something an Ang Lee just loves using metaphors for everything. The pace of the film is very strong, and the moments during the storms are intense and amazing. Though the animals are clearly CGI, there is a believability in them enough to forgive the fact that they’re not really there.
The two storms represent two very different things that happen to Pi. The first storm, God taketh away. In the second storm, however, God spares his life. He has a much less chance of survival in the dinghy; and yet he survives again. And so does Richard Parker. Why? And is it really sparing his life, when God has taken so much away from him already? In either case, Pi believes that God has shown him that his life was worth saving, and that he was chosen to go on living.
At the end, Pi asks the author which story he prefers. The author answers, “The one with the tiger.” Perhaps we all would like to believe that one, especially since that’s the one we viewed. Maybe we don’t want to see the horrors of reality. We’d rather see talking snakes and giant arcs saving animals than see reconstructed stories of what might have really happened to the people that wound up writing those stories.
But the point of “Life of Pi” isn’t about which story you believe. It’s about whether the story changes your life. And that’s what makes this such a powerful experience, and one that will last very long in my mind.