Thursday, February 28, 2013

Life of Pi Proves a Thought-Provoking and Majestic Cinematic Experience

In addition to an emotional wallop, Life of Pi offers a feast for the eyes
that really takes advantage of 3D effects.
One of the biggest moments of Sunday’s Oscar telecast was Ben Affleck’s vindicating win for Best Picture, particularly in lieu of the fact that he wasn’t even eligible in the director category despite raking in nearly every other director award this season.  
It’s likely that Affleck would’ve won for directing if he’d been nominated, but, since he wasn’t, Ang Lee netted his second Academy Award for Life of Pi. Regardless of Affleck’s nomination status, I believe the right guy walked away with the Best Director Oscar Sunday night.
Simply put, I thought Life of Pi, which has actually become a surprising smash hit with worldwide grosses exceeding $580 million thus far, was the best movie of 2012 (more on that in a minute). However, even for those who were cold on the film’s framing device or its late breaking twist, it would be hard to deny the directorial achievement.
Yann Martel’s award-winning novel was always going to be a tough story to translate into film, and that proved true over its decade-long development, as a varying number of directors, including M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuarón and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, continuously failed to crack the nut. Finally, Lee took hold of the story, bringing unparalleled visual scope (aided by ace Oscar-winning VFX work*) and instilling a great deal of heart to the undertaking.
*The VFX work here by Rhythm & Hues Studio is truly remarkable, and their Oscar win this week must’ve been bitter sweet, as they recently claimed bankruptcy. HitFix’s Drew McWeeny posted a very interesting op-ed concerning the future of the VFX industry that’s worth a look for those interested.  Long story short, VFX companies have become the lifeblood of modern filmmaking and yet they are struggling to stay out of the red due to the greedy studios in Hollywood.
The central narrative is actually a story within a story. The framing device involves a writer (Rafe Spall) who visits Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), a man who has embraced all religious outlooks since youth and somehow manages to practice all of them. The writer has come to hear Pi’s story, as he has been told it is one that will make him believe in God.

Among four Oscar wins, Life of Pi netted a much deserved
trophy for cinematography.

Patel dives into a tale about growing up in India on a zoo that his father owned and operated. In an effort to escape the turbulent political atmosphere in India, Pi’s father ultimately decides to sell off the animals and move the family to Montreal, so he contracts a Japanese ship to transport his family and the animals to Canada. A disaster occurs, and the boat sinks, but the young Pi (Suraj Sharma) manages his way into a lifeboat, ultimately turning up on the shores of Mexico 227 days later.
Spoiler Alert
Those are the definite facts.  Everything else in the movie is eventually left up to interpretation. From there, Pi tells a fantastical story about being stuck on a lifeboat with a friendly orangutan, a dastardly hyena, an injured zebra, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Pi watches on in horror as the hyena kills both the zebra and orangutan before then being killed by the tiger. Somehow, Pi manages to coexist (and even bond) with Richard Parker. Eventually, the duo spends time on an intimidating carnivorous island before drifting to Mexico where Richard Parker takes off, never to be seen again.
When found, Pi is placed in a hospital where two officials from the Japanese Ministry of Travel visit him to discuss what happened at sea. After they brush off his initial story as too farfetched to be believed, he tells them another more disturbing version of the events. In this second story, Pi says he was not joined by animals in the life boat, but rather three other human survivors – his mother, the ship’s loathsome cook and an injured sailor. Worried about limited supplies, the cook kills the sailor and later eats the man. Eventually, the cook also kills Pi’s mother, causing Pi to enact revenge and murder the cook.**
**Despite casting Gérard Depardieu as the cook, Lee does not show this variation of the story. Instead, he wisely keeps the camera on Sharma as he tells the story, making it an even more powerful and devastating version of events. Sharma is great throughout the film, but the newcomer is particularly revelatory in this scene.
The writer points out the striking similarities between the tales, noting that the orangutan is Pi’s mother, the zebra is the sailor, the hyena is the cook, and Richard Parker is Pi. Pi asks the writer which story he prefers, and the writer responds by saying he prefers the story with Richard Parker, to which Pi responds “and so it goes with God.”
The story can be interpreted in many ways. The easy conclusion is that Pi, unable to face the horror of what really happened, created a fictionalized account to retain his sanity. If that is the truth, it’s still a powerful story about how this very religious man managed to deal with horror of witnessing cannibalism and the harsh reality of being a murderer. However, it’s also possible that it all did happen and Pi was just angrily telling the Japanese officials the story they wanted to hear, or, in his words, “a story they already know.”
Real or not, Richard Parker is a marvel of VFX artistry.
In the end, it doesn’t matter which story is true. The greater question is which story do you prefer – the depressing one that makes logical sense or the miraculous one that requires suspension of disbelief? In the choice between hopeless certainty and uplifting ambiguity, the writer chooses the latter (as do the Japanese officials), and so Pi’s story becomes a tale that convinces man to believe in the unbelievable. In other words, it gives reason to “go with God.”
All of this is far more eloquently and elaborately explored in a fantastic piece by Ben Kendrick over at Screen Rant. I highly recommend checking out the article, which did wonders to illuminate the film for me. Upon exiting the theater, I knew I had seen something great, but after reading Kendrick’s words, it clarified it all for me, proving I’d seen something extraordinary.
Life of Pi is a beautiful film that works on quite a number of levels. It provides boundary-pushing visual splendors, while inviting self reflection and spirited dialogue in its macro exploration of the value of faith. However, on the micro level, it also gives us a tremendously emotional story, made all the more potent by excellent performances from Khan and Sharma, soulful direction by Lee and otherworldly VFX work that turns Richard Parker into a living, breathing character. A+