Before telling the story of his life, the adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) sells it as an adventure that will make you “believe in God.” It’s a bold claim, but a fittingly grandiose one, for while it’s hardly going to turn atheists into believers, Life Of Pi is a feat of modern film-making mastery.
Based on Yann Martell’s 2001 novel, it tells how Piscine ‘Pi’ Molitor Patel (Suraj Sharma), a charming Indian boy from Pondicherry, goes from a happy childhood of spiritual discovery and larking about in his parents’ zoo to being shipwrecked for 227 days with only a hungry Bengal tiger named Richard Parker for company.
Story-wise, the concept is engrossing enough, with themes of survival and belief that could have so easily veered into preachy sentimentality being scripted with a profound sense of deftness. Yet, as good as it is on its own, the script feels almost secondary to Ang Lee’s directorial vision – a vision that shines forth from every shot, defining the film’s fantastical idealism.
Life Of Pi’s story is one that, above all, is about finding hope among the extremities of desperation – where animal and human know no difference – yet Lee also manages to articulate beauty in emptiness.
From the pivoting set-piece of a storm sinking Pi’s ship (a sequence that, much like the rage of the ocean, engulfs the senses), Lee makes a point of framing his shipwrecked shots like paintings of desolation, with the sea and sky playing as much of a role in the grandeur as a carnivorous island of meerkats or the sudden leap of a whale or Richard the tiger. Even the use of 3D – at its best during the opening titles – is infused with the poetry of nature.
In time, as our hero’s life dwindles, his body and mind ravaged by starvation, the validity of his extraordinary account comes into question. The doubt jars – even if it has been whirring uncomfortably in the back of your mind. Why? Because this wouldn’t be a lie you watched; this would be a lie you lived. Either way, it’s definitely worth watching.