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Oxford Screening: A story to make you believe in God

James Searle

Ang Lee
Life of Pi
20th Century Fox
20 December 2012 (UK)






Early on in Life of Pi, the latest film by Ang Lee and an adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel, a nameless writer tells an adult Pi Patel that he has come to him to hear what he has been told is “a story that would make me believe in God.” The conversation is an awkward framing device which is thankfully forgotten about by the film’s midpoint, but that one line sticks out as an apparent statement of intent, filtering every scene to follow. The line, however, is a red herring: by the end of the film, it is clear that Life of Pi is less a work about God and more a film about the wonders (perhaps even the godliness) of human ingenuity and imagination, both on and off the screen.

The majority of the film is spent relating the tale of an adolescent Pi after a freight ship taking him and his family from India to Canada sinks in a tragic accident, leaving the boy stranded on a lifeboat with only a hyena, zebra, orang-utan and tiger for company. The relationship between Pi and the tiger, known as Richard Parker due to an admin mistake that proved too charming to correct, is the central dynamic of the movie, evolving from wary mistrust to a mutual co-dependence. This process is more than a little predictable, but it is just gradual enough to stay grounded and is largely redeemed by the film’s concern with the power and comfort of traditional narrative tropes.

A more problematic element of the plot than the Pi/Parker dynamic is the loss of momentum during the middle act; the 127 Hours-esque premise makes for a lack of incident at some points. However, like Danny Boyle’s film, this movie is kept interesting and watchable by an engaging lead performance and moreover by the sheer amount of visual ingenuity and richness on display at any given moment. The film’s art design is nothing short of majestic, dousing the screen in lush colour. The movie is particularly beautiful when viewed in 3D, which lends a story-book quality to the viewing experience. At several points in the film, such as the sinking of the freighter, Pi’s arrival on a surreal island or the appearance of an enormous whale, it is difficult not be in awe of what is on the screen. The trippy but elegant dream sequence is not just a joy to look at, but a triumph of creativity, technology and virtuoso design.

Pi’s tale is fantastic (in all senses of the word): a story of bravery, hope and love. In many ways it is like a parable: Pi’s determination, kindness and faith throughout desperate circumstances are rewarded by food, safety and his eventual return through events miraculous enough to bring to mind God as well as fate (Vishnu even turns up in the form of a fish at one point). But the film’s final few scenes shine a new lens on the story as presented to the audience up to that point. The lush otherworldliness created by the 3D effects points to the ultimate truth about parables: while they can represent things that are real, they are never in themselves anything more than stories.

And yet a story is still a powerful thing, and demonstrating this is Life of Pi’s great triumph. In embracing Pi’s tale as a story first and foremost, the film reminds us of the dynamism and sheer glory of human imagination. In the narrative itself, Pi demonstrates astounding heart, intelligence and tenacity. Outside the narrative, the CGI engineers, producers, directors and authors behind the film and its source material demonstrate the exact same qualities. Maybe the events shown in the film are less impressive due to their artificiality, but this makes us understand just how impressive the art of conceiving and telling such a story is. Life of Pi is a tale of wonder, where we bask in the feats of the storytellers rather than the story itself. It comes heartily recommended.

James Searle is reading for an MPhil in Political Science at St. Anne’s College, Oxford.