I have something of an aversion to stories and movies that concern themselves overtly with spirituality. It usually plays out like this: I'm alright accepting that a film can be an experience that could be described as spiritual in that it's beautiful, transcendent, and grappling with major philosophical undercurrents on the nature of existence (The Tree of Life, for example, does not bother me). When the film takes a turn towards dealing explicitly in the language of organized religions as it walks steadily towards a thesis on spirituality and belief in a defined 'Him', I start getting pretty damn antsy. While art may be a church, I do not want a film to sneakily take me to church, if that makes sense. I mean, Signs was too baldly Christian for me. In literature, an author can get away with a bit more wandering spirituality. The questions on paper often appear more secular and are loaded with doubts, with allegory, and with a presence of voice that does not translate to the screen. So, I'd read Yann Martel's Life of Pi during its peak popularity. I recall finding it a charming, lovely adventure story and somehow in the years since I'd completely excised the existence of 'God' from the tale of a boy, a tiger, and a boat.
Which is exactly the reason I sat through the first half hour or so of Ang Lee's Life of Pi questioning my memory and feeling something I can only describe as twitchy disinterest. You may refer to me as 'ye of little faith' if you so choose, and you would be correct: I am so accustomed to complete secularism that when a film opens up promising me that the story it tells will "make you believe in god" I start to think "wait....why is that a thing we're talking about?" and then quickly jump to a "you have part of my attention." Indeed,the opening chapters of Life of Pi take their sweet time etching out a space for the story to come. Through a slightly clunky flashback framework we are being told the life story of young Piscine Patel, aka Pi (Suraj Sharma) by middle aged Pi (Irrfan Khan). Before we can arrive at the ordeal of the boat, we must be walked through a cinematographically inferior section on the adolescence of Pi and the conditions of his semi-eccentric maturation. The stories of Pi's youth are really quite charming when taken on their own: we are given the amusing tale of his naming, the way he imposes his nickname on his classmates, some excellent scenes of everyday life growing up on the zoo owned by his father, and his accumulation of religions. By the time he's a preteen, Pi fancies himself a Hindu-Christian-Muslim and appreciates the perspective afforded him by all three. That openness, in itself, is fantastic and certainly what allowed me to read the book without question. The merger is a lovely sentiment and the ways in which young Pi takes to practicing his various religions speaks to an understanding that's quite productive. On paper, you need to have adult Pi narrating this. The context for the story, if it's in first person, must exist with a commentary that child Pi perhaps cannot provide. Yet, in maintaining this approach, the film version becomes overly preachy and prone to sentimental treacle.
The framework is truly frustrating as in imposing adult Pi's conversation with an unnamed writer, Lee is all but knocking us over the head with the allegorical implications of the story. The director (now the author) does not appear to trust the viewer/reader with being able to derive meaning from an otherwise beautifully told story and instead of getting a pure, slightly patchwork vision of a curiously spiritual, very independent and open minded young boy in these opening chapters, we are told repeatedly that the story to come will make us believe in the existence of god; a refrain far from necessary given the nature of the character and the context clues pre-loaded into the story itself. Dear Ang Lee: show don't tell. All of this makes for a rather shaky, humble beginning to what is otherwise a legitimately dazzling bit of filmmaking. Once Pi experiences the shipwreck that strands him on a lifeboat alongside a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and yes, a tiger named Richard Parker. the adventure unfolds in fascinating, frequently mesmerizing detail. When the storytelling retreats into the background, we are left with a luxuriantly illustrated tale of survival in the face of impossible odds.
The core of Life of Pi is an exquisite display boasting realistic special effects and a bold, graphic quality that really paints a striking picture. The character's struggle on the sea has been rendered as a meditation, a period of conjoined reflection and adversity manifested as epiphany. There's much that's amazing, and the use of the 3D technology here is quite artful. During our extended stint on the boat, Life of Pi becomes a technological achievement to be reckoned with as well as a compelling, sophisticated fable with a rich, experiential quality. Sharma plays against tigers real and imaginary quite believably, and if I had to guess, I'd say that most of the cast and crew's consideration went towards filming these sequences and not towards the significantly blander scenes on shore. Life of Pi is 2/3 of a great film and 1/3 mediocre one. Where it succeeds, it breezes past effortlessly and speaks for itself. Where it falls flat it slows down, shares too much, spells out its secrets, and drops in Gerard Depardieu for no apparent reason. Still, 2/3 of greatness? That's enough to sit through a bit of preachy talk for.