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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Monster of God: Life of Pi

Life’s a bitch, and then you die. Or rather, sometimes life’s getting stuck on a small lifeboat with a man-eating tiger in the middle of the goddamned Pacific, starving and feeling utterly alone, and then you live, though you might as well be dead given all you’ve endured. “And so it is with God,” says Pi Patel (played by Irrfan Khan as the adult narrator, and Suraj Sharma as a young man), chief character of the modern fairy tale Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel and directed by the versatile Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Ride With the Devil, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hulk, Brokeback Mountain, Lust Caution, Taking Woodstock). And so it is with this film, which we’re told, early on, will make us believe in God. We’re told this, and because the film doesn’t live up such a lofty goal, we may forget that the narrator doesn’t promise such consolation. I think that’s the point here, and there’s a chilly ambivalence beneath the blanket of warmth with which Lee has decorated things, from the friendly storybook credit sequence of animals peaceably existing in a zoo, to the family smiles that wrap things up. This CGI-laden 3-D spectacle is a little deceiving with its children’s story book cover, and I think it’s really an effective meditation on loneliness and despair, and the stories we tell ourselves to cope, like a benevolent guide engineering and overseeing the Universe. Whether it’s God, an animal, or your own sense of permanence, it’s drawn up from the same binary code of our imagination. Does Richard Parker, the tiger with a human’s name (through a clerical error), have a “soul”? Or is that what we project onto him? Are we watching Life of Pi from a basic Western view of binaries (God/no God) instead of the Eastern one that gave birth to Pi, a Hindu culture of millions and millions of gods?  I’m not sure if belief or non-belief is the central issue of this beautiful and horrifying moving tapestry.

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