While leaving the theatre parking lot after watching Ang Lee’s latest film, Life of Pi, I nearly found myself in an accident. Though I had the right of way, a white truck came barrelling out of an aisle at full speed and recklessly made a wide right-hand turn into traffic. Had I not slammed on my breaks in time, the white truck would have certainly slammed into my vehicle. As the driver of the truck peeled off clueless to the destruction he almost caused, I was left to wonder was it an act of God that prevented the accident or was it merely a combination of reflexes and automotive engineering?
The experience in the parking lot may not have been as harrowing as the one Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) endures, but the timing of it could not been more appropriate. After spending two hours enthralled in Ang Lee’s contemplation of faith versus fact, or what we perceive as fact, here I was deep in further faith based thought. While the Life of Pi ultimately tells a tale designed to “make you believe in God,” whether one believes in God by the end of the film is a moot point. It is the fact that the film offers an avenue for thoughts about faith, and the perseverance of the human spirit in face of tragedy, that ultimately matters.
Based on the best-selling novel by Yann Martel, the film focuses on an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) recounting the most important event of his life to a writer (Rafe Spall) seeking inspiration for a new novel. Pi informs the writer that since he was a young boy he had been curious about religion. This obsession led him to adopting elements from various faiths into his daily life. When Pi’s father can no longer afford to keep the zoo he runs, the whole family must leave India in hopes of a new life in Canada. On the journey across the ocean, disaster strikes and Pi soon finds himself on a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Adrift in the Pacific Ocean for days, and faced with dangers in and out of the lifeboat, Pi’s faith is put to the test in ways he could never have imagine.
The idea of adapting Life of Pi into a film was met with much skepticism considering that one of the main characters in the film is a Bengal tiger. Fortunately, the final product erases any doubt that a film adaptation could not capture the novel from both a spiritual and visual standpoint. Ang Lee manages to explore the spiritual core of the novel in a way that does not come off as “preachy” to those who would consider themselves “non-believers.” The film merely presents the story in a way that leaves it up to the viewer to decide how much “faith” they are willing to digest. Life of Pi is not a film that encourages blind faith, but rather how questioning aspects of faith and religion can ultimately help to strengthen one’s own beliefs.
While there will no doubt be those who will find the spiritual aspects of the film rather heavy-handed, they will find it hard to deny the visual splendor of the film. The visual effects, especially in regards to bringing Richard Parker to life on the big screen, are sensational. So much attention is paid to the details of the animals that, more often than not, it is hard to tell what is real and what is computer generated. There is an ethereal beauty to the look of the whole film which fits perfectly with the themes of the film. The strong visuals help to make up for a few of the short comings on the acting side.
This is not to say that newcomer Suraj Sharma does a bad job as the sixteen year-old Pi, in fact he is rather good given the fact that he must act off computer rendered creatures for most of the film. However, Sharma’s inexperience does come through on several occasions throughout the film. He does not always sell the scenes with the gravitas needed. Fortunately, these minor missteps do little to damage the overall appeal of the film. Life of Pi may not rank amongst Lee’s best works, but it successfully captures the spirit of Yann Martel’s novel. It may not convince you of the power of God, but Lee’s film nonetheless provides audiences with a beautiful vehicle to thinking about faith and life for a few hours. Some may say that in itself is an act of God.