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Movie Review

Life of Pi

Life of Pi
Suraj Sharma in "Life of Pi"

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Rated PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril. 2 hours, 7 minutes.
Publication date: Nov. 23, 2012
Review by Peter Canavese
Released: (2012)

In Ang Lee's exhilarating "Life of Pi" -- based upon the bestselling novel by Yann Martel -- a boy adrift reads a "Survival at Sea" manual. "Telling stories is highly recommended," it says. "Above all, do not lose hope."

The same might be said of a life lived existentially "at sea." Martel's fable of faith serves as a Rorschach test of belief, one that the faithful can enthusiastically embrace but one that also leaves itself open to a purely rationalist interpretation. In the hands of Ang Lee, a true film artist, "Life of Pi" elegantly walks Martel's philosophical line while also brilliantly using every modern cinematic tool to tell an epic yarn.

Most prominent among these tools is 3D. Lee joins the ranks of auteurs reinvigorated in their craft by the playful promise of the new 3D cameras, and he gainfully employs the technology for its full ViewMaster "pop" effect, but also in more magical ways. Lee's typically innovative visual approach here extends, in one sequence, to tricking the eye with flying fish that leap out of the frame vertically at the same time as they appear to approach the eye with 3D depth.

"Life of Pi" also qualifies as a tour de force for its newly minted star, 17-year-old discovery Suraj Sharma. Sharma plays the teenage Piscine Molitor (a.k.a. "Pi"), who, having been raised in South India, winds up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, warily sharing a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger. A framing device establishes the adult Pi (the great Irrfan Khan) telling his remarkable story to a Canadian novelist (Rafe Spall), understood to be a Martel surrogate, who has come to hear "a story that would make (him) believe in God."

As a boy, Pi (Ayush Tandon) becomes something of a "Catholic Hindu," who sees the gods of various religions as his "superheroes." His zookeeper father sternly cautions, "Believing in everything at the same time is the same as not believing anything at all." Pi's spiritual picaresque shifts into a high gear once he's fighting for survival on that "life"boat. Pushed to the limits of endurance, Pi stands at an intersection of madness and reality, a liminal space that finds him susceptible to desire for "salvation" but also possibly open to unique insight.

Pi's attempts to reach detente with the tiger (dubbed "Richard Parker") create a fearful intimacy analogous to some people's experience of God. "I have to believe there was more in his eyes than my own reflection staring back at me," Pi says, but the film's visual motifs of mirrored surfaces (including astonishing imagery of sea reflecting sky) might just as well suggest that people under sufficient emotional duress see what they want to see.

"Life of Pi" succeeds as a grand adventure, but also as a provocation, about what we need to believe. And, given what we do accept -- even in science -- it's about what we may as well believe in to adapt to our everyday absurd circumstance of finite existence. As Spall's character says, "It is a lot to take in," but that's a good thing where moviegoers are concerned.