[xrr rating=2.75/5]One must admit that the decision to adapt Life of Pi for the screen is a curious one. Yann Martel’s narrative posits two versions of the same story, the survival of a young man named Pi (short for Piscine Molitor) Patel (portrayed in the film by Gautam Belur, Ayush Tandon, Suraj Sharma and Irrfan Khan at different ages) after a shipwreck. One is believably ordinary but grisly, while the other is fantastical and inspiring. Within this narrative, Martel creates ambiguity around which version of Pi’s survival is the “real” one, but in adapting it to the screen, director Ang Lee and screenwriter David Magee make the decision to depict one of these stories visually while leaving the other to be conveyed entirely verbally. Though we understand novels and films alike to be fictional, there is something particularly forceful about cinema’s capacity to make us believe in what we see, however momentarily, partly a result of the fact that so much of what we see derives from actual, though staged, events. In this way, bringing Martel’s story to the screen seems most appropriate even while it, potentially disastrously, undermines the very ambiguity that supposedly drives this narrative.

It is the more fantastical story in Lee’s Life of Pi that feels far less naturalistic, doubling as a showcase for up-to-date CGI and 3D effects, while the grave and more literal story is depicted using a plain visual schema, in a matter-of-fact style that lends Pi’s words a hard-to-shake sincerity. These overlapping layers of tension ultimately produce a muddle of a film, but it’s one that, like a piece of fruit, can nonetheless be opened up and picked apart for its momentary pleasures, while the rest is discarded. The way Lee edges into the territory of magical realism is interesting and, for a while, quite visually inspired, as when he creates the image of a man swimming not through water but through the sky (Lee returns to this blurring of sky and sea later on in the film to great effect). Early on, before the shipwreck that shapes the entire narrative, Life of Pi succeeds in unfolding at its own relaxed pace, a rather freeform narrative buoyed by Khan’s voiceover narration from the perspective of the adult Pi. But it’s a shame that Khan is not woven more into the film, as he is the work’s most commanding presence, ushering us carefully through the life of Pi with his dulcet, insistent speech.

Strangely, in fact, Khan’s presence diminishes for a while in the middle of Life of Pi, which makes the film’s centerpiece, the story of how a teenaged Pi survives after the shipwreck, a strangely unintegrated piece of storytelling. It’s largely a film within a film, one that could be easily extracted and function perfectly fine without the framed story of the adult Pi’s conversation with an author (Rafe Spall), a stand-in for Martel, about his life experiences. The technical achievements of this centerpiece are certainly notable—for one, the animation of the Bengal tiger known as Richard Parker is astoundingly realistic at times, as any cat-lover will notice—but they too often call attention to themselves as the film’s raison d’être, which makes the story itself decidedly less personal (the contrast between the massive technical expertise that went into the film and the lone survival of a resourceful, plucky young man is rather unshakably ironic in retrospect).

But in the way that Khan’s presence recedes to the background, Life of Pi seems to express its own disinterest in the narrative ambiguities that are central to Martel’s concerns. For a great stretch of time, the travails of Pi post-shipwreck, aboard a small boat with a potentially hostile tiger, is the story of Life of Pi, not least because its visual energy and inventiveness so overshadows everything else, especially the rather nondescript scenes between the adult Pi and the Martel stand-in. If, later on, we are meant to go back and consider whether or not this story is actually “true,” the effect doesn’t entirely work because of how the film’s early sequences prime us for the fantastical nature of Pi’s survival story. In other words, we accept the film’s unreality, which is pitched, as always in cinema, somewhere between the metaphorical and the dreamlike. The scenes depicting Pi’s struggle to survive on his tiny boat and placate the would-be threat of the tiger are simply how films are supposed to look according to us, as we are now accustomed, whereas the sequence in which Pi tells his alternate version of the story, in which all the animals are replaced by human survivors from the ship, sheds cinema’s artifice but also, along with it, any point of connection we might have to that story.

By the time the adult Pi reveals the purpose of these two stories, which is to give us the opportunity to choose the “better” and more ennobling one involving the tiger, there’s hardly any tension remaining between the layers of reality in the film. The framing story of Martel’s interview with Pi is obviously meant to create distance within the narrative, but within the film, it functions as something of an empty gesture, a halfhearted nod to the intentions of Martel’s novel. All of this is to say that Life of Pi lacks a sense of drama that might properly correspond to its technical achievements. Instead of crafting the story of the adult Pi narrating his own life or the story of the inherent tension between Pi’s two versions of his survival, Lee more or less gives us the story of a young man on a boat with a tiger. This is exciting and dazzling, but it’s little more than an empty exercise. Comparatively, there’s so much more drama in Khan’s narration, which places the act of storytelling itself front and center, where it should be.

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2 Comments

  1. Uriah

    December 16, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    I think I would have rated this movie a lot higher. You mentioned that there was hardly any tension in the film, and I thought that it was a very eye catching movie. Life of Pi did have a few drawbacks, but it also had areas of great strength. Personally, I can’t wait to see it again! I’ve already added Life of Pi to my queue on Blockbuster @Home from DISH, since it should be available a month before Redbox. I saw it with one of my DISH coworkers and we would recommend seeing it for sure.

    Reply

  2. oscar

    March 4, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    Western audience won’t ever understand why Chinese movies always depict people fighting in the air for incredible long time unless you know something about Chinese culture. You won’t understand if Chinese movies show you yellow, green and red colors related to elements or if they use white color related to death.

    The same can be said here. This is a story focusing in the TIGER and the tiger is very important figure in India related to Hindu gods lying upon tiger-skin carpet or with inner force.

    Vishnu is a god resting upon waters of the cosmos, so the omnipresence of that liquid element won’t ever be understood by someone not familiar with Hinduism. They won’t even notice the figure of a god lying in the shape of the clouds or the island like a resting god itself.

    In other words, this Chinese director knows more about India and its mythology than conspicuous critics.

    Reply

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