Best Picture breakdowns: 'Life of Pi' a gorgeous visual and spiritual journey

Ang Lee opens up "Life of Pi" with a stunning visual palette

January 13, 2013

I encountered Yann Martel’s Life of Pi with a chip on my shoulder, determined not to like it. A controversy whirled around it, not just because the premise was almost identical to Moacyr Scliar’s Max and the Cats, but because Martel -- though freely acknowledging the inspiration -- had been a total dick about it.

“Why put up with a brilliant premise ruined by a lesser writer?" Martel had said by way of explaining why he’d never read Scliar’s brilliant little book but took its idea for his own.

As an admirer of Scliar’s, I was disgusted by Martel and went into the pages of Pi looking for evidence of the lesser writer. What I found instead was a beautiful story that hooked me from the go: I loved the writing if not the writer.

And when I heard a movie was to be made of it, I was taken aback: What could this story about spirituality, about such a personal journey, render visually besides, well, a shipwrecked boy and a tiger on a boat? A story about loss -- and Pi loses everything: his family, his country, his purpose -- is marked by absence.

Forgive me my lack of imagination: Director Ang Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda have opened up this very insular story with a stunning visual palette. Indeed, it’s the best and most assured use of 3-D I’ve ever seen. There are so few of the usual attention grabbers and so many utterly breathtaking moments. The ocean itself, water, is almost a universe in itself: a peach colored mirror, a sky crowded with constellations, a tomb, a glass partition between life and death, earth and heaven. It’s a place of plenty and a black hole, a torment and cradle of divine grace.

And that tiger! Such a relentlessly unsentimental, un-Disneyed tiger -- the most discomforting source of comfort for Pi on his journey. A combination of CGI and footage of four different tigers, Richard Parker -- as he’s called -- is never Pi’s friend, is always savage and aways at least vaguely threatening (though Lee and Miranda keep most of the carnage offstage and at a distance, letting us experience the horror of it mostly through the terror on Pi’s face). Richard Parker is a carnivorous jungle beast, but one with a soul  -- a soul whom Pi’s vegetarian Hindu/Catholic/Muslim soul recognizes.

The story is told in three parts and through a frame: the adult Pi tells a visiting writer the tale of his survival, a story the writer’s been told  “would make you believe in God." So we know from the go that Pi survives, stealing a bit of tension from all the scenes in which Pi the castaway seems about to lose his battle with the elements.

The first part is set up and, in retrospect, sometimes feels like a different movie. Pi and his family live in Pondicherry, India, where his father is zoo keeper. His father is a man of reason, his mother a Hindu who inculcates her religion in her sons but is also open-minded enough to accept Pi’s interests in Catholicism and Islam. In fact, he practices all three, not by reconciling them but by accepting their specific beauties. Then his father decides to sell the zoo animals and move the family to Canada.

The second part is the 227 days that PI is lost at sea with Richard Parker, an epic adventure of survival and faith, after the ship his family is on sinks.

And the third and shortest -- and slowest -- segment comes after the rescue, when Pi is questioned by Japanese authorities about the shipwreck that set him on his course. The movie, like the book, ends with a question, less about what really happened out in the water than about our own natures. But in the movie, Suraj Sharma, the young actor who plays Pi, tips the answer in a different direction than the book. It's a subtle but significant shift, and in some ways, alters the movie's meaning.

I won’t spoil it for you. Read the book, see the movie. We can go get a cup of coffee later and talk about it.