It’s a cliche to hear a film is not just a film, it’s an experience, but it’s truly difficult to find more fitting words to describe the best film of Ang Lee’s already impressive repertoire, the beautiful, exciting, emotional and thought-provoking “Life of Pi”, which screened last night at the AFI Film Festival. A slow and contemplative meditation on life and faith mixed seamlessly with some of the most intense, most jaw-dropping action sequences you will ever see, “Life of Pi” is a nearly perfect movie that also boasts the most beautiful use of 3D since “Avatar.”
The film starts on solidly realistic grounds, with the older Pi Patel (played brilliantly by Irrfan Khan, who gives the most riveting performance of the film) telling an author (Rafe Spall) all about his childhood. The author has learned from a family friend that Pi has a story that “will make you believe in God”, and he is, perhaps understandably, a bit antsy to get to that story, but the adult Pi takes his time, lingering for a good half hour describing his upbringing (played by Ayush Tandon as a youngster), how he got his name, his affinity for water and one particularly compelling encounter with his family’s zoo’s new tiger named Richard Parker.
A simple clerical error gave the tiger its amusing human name, but it’s an apt metaphor as Richard Parker quickly becomes Pi’s only companion after the two survive a harrowing shipwreck and wind up too close for comfort on a lifeboat together. A lifelong vegetarian and religious fanatic of all sorts of faiths, Pi (now played admirably for the bulk of the watery journey by Suraj Sharma) breaks down when he’s forced to kill a fish in order to feed Richard Parker so he himself does not get eaten. It’s a poignant moment and an act that comes more naturally to him as time goes on, as he begins to reconcile the need to put his own survival over God’s other creatures. Much like Tom Hanks’ volleyball in “Castaway”, Pi comes to also depend upon and humanize Richard Parker even as he still fears for his own life and recognize the tiger does not view their budding one-sided friendship in quite the same way.
The beauty of “Life of Pi” comes from the thought-provoking philosophical questions it asks of the audience (and Spall, a satisfactory stand-in for our outsider point of view) as Pi concludes his story, but also literally, in huge part, from the brilliant cinematography by Claudio Miranda and the perfect use of 3D as an art form. The real and the fantastic are blurred seamlessly and purposefully through the lens to create a dreamlike yet often harrowing journey for Pi and for us. What’s real and not real becomes the major driving force holding Pi’s story together and a major question asked of various characters and the audience itself. Personally, with the way Lee has told us Pi’s story on the big screen, there is only one – perhaps illogical – but simply undeniable choice.