‘Life Of Pi’ Fascinating, But Long For Allegory


The problem with the new movie Life of Pi is that it is an allegory, and allegories work well when the real point of the story is made clear from the start. This film, while incredibly beautiful in its visual brilliance and clever in its use of the situations from the celebrated book it is based upon, winds up not making its point clear until its last minute — and even then muddles it a bit. Yet, there is little doubt that it is a strong, vital film.

The story is about a young man, Piscine Molitor Patel (Irrfan Khan plays the adult), named for a French swimming pool, who renames himself “Pi.” The opening part of the film focuses on his speaking to a British writer (Rafe Spall) sent to him because of his “fantastic story.” His family lives in French India; however, most who see this movie will not be aware that a small part of India was French-dominated. That area, mostly surrounding Pondicherry, did not join the country until 1954.

His family owns a local zoo, and he grows up (young Pi is played by Suraj Sharma) learning about the animals, particularly a fierce tiger named Richard Parker — a name given because there had been an amusing error when the animal was shipped and the tiger was listed under the name of the hunter who caught him. His father decides that the family should move to Canada, and they sail off on a small Japanese freighter that capsizes in a storm.

Young Pi finds himself alone on a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena and an orangutan. The hyena kills the other two animals, and then it and Pi realize that the tiger has been sleeping under a tarp. It kills the hyena, and then Pi must survive alone with it.

They go through a many adventures and are almost capsized by a whale that leaps over the boat. This starts a battle between them, when suddenly Pi is saved by the appearance of a large number of flying fish that land in the boat, an interlude on a strange carnivorous island. Eventually, after 200 days, the lifeboat washes ashore in Mexico. Pi collapses on the beach, and Richard Parker just walks off into a nearby jungle.

The last part of the movie is Pi’s attempting to explain what happened to a couple of Japanese insurance executives. They are not willing to accept his story, so he gives them another about human brutality that they, and a writer listening to Pi’s story, feel simply replaces the animals with human characters. Pi asks which they prefer, and they eventually use the story of Richard Parker.

Effectively, the film puts this in a religious metaphor. Pi, born Hindu but also worshipping as both Christian and Muslim, seems to say that we choose to believe things happen because of God, rather than as random events.

The cinematography is superb. Director Ang Lee finds many ways to look at water: sometimes ferocious, sometimes incredibly peaceful and often luminescent. This is one of the few movies that really gains from 3D; the visual effects are stunning. The movie could almost be a travelogue, and that is its weakness. Everything moves slowly; Pi could simply have waited for a while and not fed the tiger. Without fresh water and food, it would have died far more quickly, but the young man reveres life.

The acting was very good. Sharma was great as young Pi, charming in the early part of the film as he chased a beautiful young woman, more and more frantic as the film progressed. Yet he constantly ensured we could see the humanistic side of the young Pi; while terrified of Richard Parker, he came to care for the beast. Khan, one of India’s finest actors, is very good as the older Pi, narrating and commenting on the action. Spall is good as the writer.

Allegory should be to the point, which usually means brief. This one went on… and on… and on. It is a good movie, but the producers at least should have cut a bit out of the center. There were far too many times when the action between Pi and the tiger (which was a computer-generated one, but so realistic that it was fully believable) seemed repetitious.

If you like that kind of movie (and, I admit, I prefer more plot and less symbolism), go see it. It probably will be nominated for many awards and also probably deserves an Oscar for the cinematography. But, while the movie I saw last week, Skyfall, felt as though it took only minutes to fly by, this one dragged. It is a good, but — unless you are a mystic — not great, film.