Life of Pi (2012)

Life of Pi (2012, PG) is a tale of adventure built around a young Indian boy named Piscine Molitor Patel, simply known as Pi.  He is the son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, southern India.  The area's unsettled government convinces Pi's father to close the zoo and move to Canada, where he would sell the animals.  On the journey to Canada, an violent Atlantic storm causes their freight to sink, and the only survivors are Pi himself, a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, an orangutang, and a terrified, hungry, and hopelessly wild Bengal tiger accidentally named Richard Parker.

The boy's resourcefulness is something to be admired. Having grown up in a relatively well-off family, Pi never learned the skills of survivalism, but due to his own creativeness and the help of a "survival at sea" handbook he conveniently finds in the boat, he is able to build a raft which floats alongside the lifeboat, attached by only a rope.  He spends most of the time on that raft, keeping himself a safe distance from the excitable tiger, and there he collects rainwater and fish, throwing the occasional one to the tiger.  When Pi can no longer stand the fear of being attacked by a tiger at any given moment, he takes it upon himself to train it, which he does successfully - thanks to chunks of fish and a piece of wood he whittled into a wand.

The survival handbook, which eventually gets blown away in another storm, entreats the survivor to "never lose hope," and Pi never does.  This is a major theme in the film - the endurance of hope despite all external circumstances, even if that hope would probably seem to the outside world as completely irrational - I mean, a teenager is stuck on a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic ocean…with a tiger - but this does not cause Pi to doubt, even if ten thousand difficulties obstruct his path.

Pi's kindness even in desperation is another admirable quality. In his hunger, the tiger Richard Parker dives off the boat in an attempt to catch a fish, and Pi is tempted just to let him drown.  He can't bring himself to do it, even though there is no logical reason at the moment why he shouldn't.  Pi offers a tremendous kindness to a creature that certainly would never be able to pay it back. The scene is particularly moving, as it is a  testimony to the kind of unselfish love we are meant to show, not to animals only, but to our fellow human beings.

Life of Pi is undoubtedly full of conversation starters.  The religious elements to the movie are particularly interesting. Pi Partel is deeply faithful, but seemingly to Hindu, Catholicism, and Islam all mixed into one. Pi is a stereotypical syncretist: he was raised Hindu by his mother, and believes the powerful myths and colorful gods to be his "superheroes."  On a dare from his older brother, Pi enters a Catholic Church and drinks the Holy Water, but is then offered a glass of "regular" water by the priest residing there.  Pi notices the beautiful life-size crucifix at the front of the altar, and begins to question the priest about the Son of God.  Pi becomes enthralled by the Son and embraces Catholicism with everything it stands for, while simultaneously thanking Vishnu (the Hindu god of heaven and all creation) for bringing him to the Church. Later the film shows him expressing interested in Islam as well, finding solace in the Arabic prayers and ceaseless kneeling, bowing, and chanting.

Pi's father, has a very different view of religion. A man strongly compelled by science, Santosh Patel believes that "all religion is darkness," at the same time joking that Pi would only need to join three more religions to constantly be on holiday.  On the more serious note, though, Pi's father exhorts the impressionable young boy to make each choice based on reason and science, and to make up his mind which religious group he will follow, instead of believing everything at the same time.  "Believing everything is the same as believing nothing," he tells his son. This is ironic advice coming from an atheist, but it is fundamentally true and is the most powerful argument against modern syncretism that would see all religions as mutually complimentary. This adds to the irony of the movie: human compassion being taught through compassion to a dumb animal, and now fundamental truths about religion coming from an atheist.

Pi prays fervently quite a few times throughout the film, surrendering himself to God as a vessel, thanking God for his trials, and telling Him that he is happy that he will see his family soon (thinking he is going to die).  What god exactly he is praying to remains unclear; He thanks Vishnu again for coming in the form of a fish to save them. Pi and the tiger happen upon a toxic floating island, and Pi takes that as a sign from the Christian God that they must continue on their journey.

When they finally get to Mexico, the tiger Richard Parker leaves Pi without a thought. It is interesting that Pi was so injured by the fact that Parker just left him in the sand when they arrived on the Mexican shore. As he tells his tale to the young author visiting him, the older Pi Patel says with tears in his eyes, "All of life is an act of letting go, but what hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye."  What a profound thought in such a little sentence.

The variability makes Life of Pi even more thought provoking, but one must be wary of the belief that all religions lead to the same God, and that "faith" will saturate our lives with meaning regardless of the faith's validity or the object towards which it is directed. Pi certainly embraces Catholicism, but not the Catholicism of the saints and apostles, as he never apparently lets go of his syncretist attachment to other religions. This concept permeates the film. Catholicism, however, dismisses these ideas altogether, proclaiming that there is no way to the Father but through the Son, and that without the resurrection of Christ, we are pitiable more than any.

While there is no questionable sexual content, there are a few instances of violence that might be disturbing to the younger audience.  Nature is violent and sometimes cruel, and Life of Pi doesn't hold back in showing that fact.  As a punishment for Pi's attempt to hand feed the Pondicherry Zoo's new tiger, his father ties a live goat to the bars of the cage and demands that Pi and his brother watch as the poor animal is mangled and eaten.  Luckily for the more sensitive audience, the initial kill is not shown - but we do see the dead goat being dragged away by Richard Parker.  Pi kills a fish for the tiger with the blunt side of a hatchet (and afterward apologizes and cries over it).  A hyena kills an orangutang and a zebra, and a giant squid engulfs a sperm whale.  Everyone (thing) on the ship is killed in the shipwreck, including Pi's entire family. It's intense, to say the least.

In his first attempt to tame the agitated Richard Parker, Pi urinates on the tarp covering half of the lifeboat to "mark his territory," to which the beast responds by spraying the boy.  Several of the animals are depicted experience seasickness.

Directed by Ang Lee, most of the film takes place in the middle of an ocean, but the cinematography was spectacular nonetheless, and the almost solo performance of Suraj Sharma (Pi) was terrific.  Ultimately, Life of Pi was a beautiful, inspirational, and enjoyable story of hope and survival on a natural level, but the presence of a relativist-syncretist ethic throughout is troubling from a Catholic perspective. A lively discussion about why Pi's father is correct about "believing everything is believing nothing" is true would be an admirable supplement to this film.  and I would rate it 2 out of 3 tiaras.