WE TELL STORIES as one way of interpreting and making sense of a complex and irrational world. Pretty much every religion is founded on this basis. “Life of Pi” – a movie of incandescently ethereal beauty – is about story telling. It tells the story of a young Hindu, Catholic, Moslem boy who manages to survive physically and psychologically the traumatic effects of a shipwreck in which his entire family – his entire past – is eradicated.
It is on one level a story about the role of faith as fundamental to life; on another level, it’s about faith as a – perhaps necessary – delusion.
Pi – or Piscene Patel – is en route on a huge freighter with his family and a zoo of animals from Pondicherry, India, to Canada, where they plan to start a new life. However, a violent storms sinks the boat and Pi, along with a hyena, a zebra, a female orangutan and a Bengal tiger (his own Noah’s ark of God-assisted survival) survive the wreck. Eventually, it’s just him and the tiger left on the limitless and lonely Pacific ocean. They map out their own territories (Pi in a sense becomes the animal when he pees – there are a lot of school-yard jokes against the young Pi as pissing about – on his side of the boat) and live off the bounty of this ocean. They do this in ways that suggest that the ocean is itself caring for them: at a point of starving desperation, flying fish, like so many gossamer winged angels miraculously appear to save them; storms bring not so much danger as fresh water; at another crucial point, they drift into an uncharted island whose fauna both feeds them and also feeds off those hapless enough to linger there – Pi discovers a human tooth enfolded in one of the flowers there.
But that’s just one story. Pi admits to the young novelist (another story teller) to whom he is narrating his tale, that this fantastical story of survival was rejected by the Japanese insurers of the vessel. So, he told them another – a more gruesome one where the animals are replaced by people; one in which his mother has been cannibalized for survival.
The latter story is far too horrible to live with. That way lies madness. That way, of course, lies the truth. The life of Pi is Pi’s fabrication of a life designed to protect him from the disturbing realities of the truth, just as religion does.
But it’s not as one dimensional as that: Pi’s story is the one we all want to believe in. It’s fascinating, magical, amazing, death-defying…even if untrue. His life – or at least the 228 days he spends on the ocean – is simply grim and sordid. Unlike his fabrication, the reality offers us no values we can identify with or buy into. It’s just, well, life.
We need our storytellers.
The movie suggests that surviving life needs, at some level, belief and faith in something.
In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, John Ford’s seminal film about legend making, Jimmy Stewart – the much respected town sheriff and man of peace, finds that he must confront Lee Marvin, the gunslinger. Stewart has never drawn a gun before, but it’s his job and a man has to do what a man has to do. He kills Marvin in a showdown and is feted as a hero – justification in the belief that right will win out over wrong. Except Stewart didn’t kill Marvin; John Wayne was hidden on a roof and took Marvin out with a single bullet. When Stewart finds out, he insists on telling the towns-folk, but John Wayne holds him back. “When the legend meets the reality,” he says, “tell the legend.”
“Life of Pi” is about the power of legend and it’s curative values – as offering a higher truth than sordid reality and its nihilism. Ang Lee, who also gave us the wondrous “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and the tender romance of “Brokeback Mountain” has crafted an absolute Oscar contender in this one (best adapted screen play maybe – David Magee of “Finding Neverland” and Yann Martel – and best cinematography – Claudio Miranda of “…Benjamin Button”).