Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Bold, ambitious and poignant; ‘Life of Pi’ is an intriguing yarn that delves into the subject of faith and providence.
An incredible achievement in the art of storytelling and modern filmmaking, this visual telling of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel about a boy stranded on the high seas is probably one of Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s best films yet.
The book, as Martel describes in the first few pages is emblematic of his hunger at a time when he needed direction and purpose for his life. Like the protagonist that defied all odds to survive his oceanic ordeal, director Ang Lee too triumphed over adversity – an unknown lead actor and cast, a book once deemed “unfilmable”, a castaway tale of a boy on a lifeboat – to conjure up the most magical film of the year.
Also read: Interview with Ang Lee
While the author took you to places you never imagined and into the mind of Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) with his prose, Lee took Martel’s fable on step further. Akin to an artist with a box of new paints, Lee paints the screen with his metaphorical paintbrush –smothering the screen with swathes and swirls of gorgeous saturated cinematography courtesy of cinematographer Claudio Miranda (‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’), the captivating use of 3D as well as CGI. It’s almost as if you’re pulled into a pop-up picture book once the opening credits roll in.
As stunning as his ground-breaking visuals are, it is inadequate to carry the film through if it not moored to Martel’s source material (with slight tweaks by screenwriter David Magee, [‘Finding Neverland’]). The heart of the story is this: the 227 days that Pi spends on the lifeboat, adrift with a menagerie of animals until just a Bengal tiger curiously named Richard Parker remains with him. The burgeoning relationship between the man and beast is very pivotal to the story. It is here that film turns into a tale of survival and self-discovery. And it is here where the audience is slowly drawn into Pi’s world where the fates of Pi and Richard Parker really matter to us—we feel hopeful for him and fear for him.
All these of course would come to naught without the talents of one Suraj Sharma, a greenhorn with the acting chops of a seasoned actor. Plucked out of Delhi after a chance audition, Sharma manages to channel a range of emotions—fear, hopelessness, joy and adulation—but without anything physical to react to (he mostly acted to a blue-screen). Like Pi, Sharma was literally alone. The young actor delivers an impressive performance. And like Pi, we follow Sharma as he grows gaunt, as his skin turns darker and his odds at survival quickly dry up.
Also read: Interview with Suraj Sharma
It seems that Ang Lee is an old hand at beating the odds. After beating the house several times with British period drama (‘Sense and Sensibility’), Chinese martial arts (‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’), cowboy romance (‘Brokeback Mountain’) and comic heroes (‘Hulk’), what is a book adaptation?
His other trump card –3D is executed with astounding verve. Not just a money-grabbing one-trick pony as employed in other lesser films, Lee’s use of the medium–his first time--is astounding. With it, he embraces us in the movie’s emotional core and engrosses us in Pi’s physical and emotional journey. The sinking of the ship, Tsimtsum, rendered in 3D, is impressive and yet harrowing at the same time. Every swell and wave crash is calculated and considered, making you think that Lee is conducting Mother Nature from his director’s chair.
Let’s also not forget the jaw-dropping visual sorcery that’s plentiful in the film –from Richard Parker whose likeness to a real Bengal tiger is so vivid that he scares the bejesus out of audiences with every roar and the scenes of marine life to the surreal floating island inhabited by meerkats. ‘Life of Pi’ is indeed a marvel of modern film-making.
But what makes such a fantastical story like ‘Life of Pi’ so enthralling is that it is also grounded in reality – screenwriter David Magee’s framing of an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan, ‘A Mighty Heart’) sharing his tale to writer (Rafe Spall, ‘Prometheus’) juxtaposed against the his younger self’s odyssey is a masterstroke in itself as it works to carry the story forward and conveying another perspective to the tale. The story ends when the surrealist drama gives way to psychological drama at the end –each craving for your belief. Which one do you choose? The harsh and brutal truth or take a leap of faith and believe in the myth. That’s what ‘Life of Pi’ truly is about –faith.
With ‘Life of Pi’, Ang Lee brought film-making to another level not seen since Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’. What makes ‘Life of Pi’ work is that Lee is able to deal with the metaphysical themes of spirituality and self under the veneer of fantasy.
Whether it’ll make you believe in a higher power or not, it is anyone’s guess; but we’re sure that, Ang Lee has restored our faith in the magic of cinema. Yes. ‘Life of Pi’ is that powerful.