Wednesday, November 21, 2012

"Life of Pi": Equal time for big cats, and why we worship them

There here been a few notable films with long sequences of a man trapped alone in the wild.  Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi”, starting today, is the most recent.  Others have included “Castaway”, “Into the Wild”, “127 Hours”.  This sort of sequence can become painful for the moviegoer, but in Ang Lee’s film, it really works.

The film is based on a novel by Yann Martel, and it is layered to give the viewer a chance to explore with the “truth”.  As the film opens, a journalist  (Rafe Spall) interviews a middle-aged Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) in his home in Montreal.  Pi first tells the story of his comfortable upbringing in the French part of coastal India.  His family had taken over a zoo (hence another reference to “We Bought a Zoo” (Jan. 1 here, also from Fox). Pi is quite bright, and explains how he got his nickname based on the mathematical concept as well as a swimming pool in Paris where he learned to swim (and remember, there is a 1998 experimental film “PI” from Darren Aronofsky).  One day, Pi meets the grown male Bengal tiger accidentally named Richard Parker.  Pi’s farther (Adil Hussain) gives Pi a demonstration that a tiger “cannot be your friend”.

Pi is given to ruminations about religion and faith. He wonders why a savior would suffer and allow the innocent to bear the burdens of the guilty.  But eventually he adopts elements of all major religions in his own belief system.  To him, there is no problem reconciling Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.
In 1979 (and the film cuts back to the older Pi telling the story), the family decides to move the zoo to Canada, for economic reasons.  It contracts to move the animals itself on a Japanese freighter ship. When the ship is caught in a storm – possibly a typhoon – it is wrecked, and Pi alone survives on a lifeboat with raft and several of the animals. 

At first, the tiger hides below, and Pi deals with a hyena, zebra, and orangutan.  The animals, frightened, obviously look to Pi to lead and save them, but order breaks down and the hyena wounds and eats his two companions.  The tiger appears, and quickly eats the hyena.  Begrudgingly, the tiger begins to respect Pi as possibly an alpha male himself.  Pi tries to establish his “territory” and offers the tiger food for good behavior.  The tiger almost does become his “friend” when sick himself.  Pi finds that caring for the tiger gives him a new will to survive.  Pi is incredibly resourceful in using the tools and food on the lifeboat and raft. We admire the tiger for his strength and beauty, and expect it to have problem-solving abilities which, by genetics, it just doesn’t have. Only man can do this. But gradually the tiger seems to accept the idea that Pi really knows how to provide for him and keep them both alive.  After another storm, the wash up onto a strange island with carnivorous plants and prairie dogs.  There, Pi is eventually rescued and the tiger disappears back into the wild, finding plentiful food but no (female) opportunity to mate or find the companionship it may actually want.  The tiger has come to appreciate the advantage of "human" qualities, ironically, as Pi sets him free.  Pi has given Richard Parker the biggest gift of all, his freedom.  
Then, the shipping company interviews Pi in the hospital and wants to take back another story that can be believed.  In this part of the film, Pi merely talks, the regularly sized screen in a fixed closeup. (Ang Lee seems to eschew widest aspect ratios, as he did in “Brokeback Mountain”).  That stands in contrast to the visual wonders that Ang Lee shows us with Pi’s adventure at sea. We are treated to stunning sunsets, self-illuminated jellyfish, standing whales, and flying fish (which Richard Parker can eat).  We are left believing the story we want.
The official site is here

Themovie, available in 3-D, has the style of independent filmmaking, even though Fox brands this film with its “20th Century Fox” trademark rather than Searchlight (or Fox Faith). 
Since the film is in standard aspect, it pays to see it in a theater optimally set up to show it that way. I saw it at the AMC Tysons. I found that I had to take off my regular glasses and put the 3-D glasses as close to my eyes as possible for clarity.  Maybe that’s an argument for contact lenses, which I don’t use.

I wondered how this film would come across if in French with subtitles.

This film ought to lead to focused attention on the likely extinction of many big cats, including tigers.  Of the Bengals, there are only a few hundred left in the world. 

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