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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Life of Pi

So this is a very big week for films with a number of major and/ or worthwhile releases coming out. Lets starts then, with the biggest and best of them...

Like most seemingly unfilmable novels, Yann Martel's excellent, if occasionally slightly tedious, Life of Pi is heavy on theme and character and heavier still on subtext. Yes, the basic plot of a young boy surviving for weeks on a small lifeboat with only a vicious tiger for company is hardly uncinematic, but as anyone who has read the novel can tell you, Life of Pi isn't really about the plot at all.

It is above all else a story steeped in symbolism and largely plays out as a fairly brilliant metaphor for humanity's need for storytelling and for religious/ spiritual belief, as well as the way the two are interdependent on one another. It's also a novel steeped in ambiguity and while you can argue for days whether it's ultimately pro- or anti-religion or -  no, that would be telling (insert final revelation of the book here), it's a novel that is much more interested in the questions that its ambiguity raises than in any definite answers.

Even with the rather generous 127 minutes afforded it, how could any film possibly capture so thematically and sub-textually rich a text, while still doing justice to the surface plot that in and of itself might need some sprucing up to truly work as a solid adventure film?

Well, here's the truly spectacular thing about Ang Lee's movie adaptation: not only does it absolutely do justice to the novel, it improves on it in many ways. Lee maintains all of the novel's symbolic and thematic richness and at the same time vastly improves on the surface story by making full use of all the advantages film offers as a medium.  Ang Lee has had a fairly spotty career to date, with triumphs like Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon being slightly undermined by disappointing (if well intentioned) fare like The Hulk and Taking Woodstock, but Life of Pi is a powerful reminder of just how good he is when firing on all cylinders.

In terms of the basic plot, the first section of the novel is condensed and streamlined as we meet our titular hero (a terrific turn by newcomer Suraj Sharma who carries the entire film with far more authority than his inexperience would ever suggest), his family and his search for spiritual truth by sampling from all sorts of different religions, while the themes of the text already start to come through loud and clear, partly by having his parents on opposite ends of the religious spectrum and partly through the exposition afforded by the film's framing device of an older Pi (Irrfan Khan) being interviewed by a curious journalist.

It's a device that shouldn't work, but whereas such on-the-nose narration usually suffers from too much telling and not enough showing, in this case it works as both a way to keep the plot - which remember, isn't the main point - moving and as a way to draw attention to the film's thematic complexities. It also drives home just how much this isn't a question of young Pi's survival, as much as it is a journey of discovery. It's a cheat, but it's a very well implemented cheat.

With its characters defined and its themes broached (and some romance introduced that wasn't in the book), we then move onto the main part of the film as we find Pi and his family's immigration from India to Canada cut tragically short as the ship in which they are travelling mysteriously sinks faster than you can say "Titanic" and Pi is left alone on a small life boat, with only a few animals from his family zoo for company. His chances of survival are made all the more unlikely by the fact that one of these animals is Richard Parker, a fully grown adult tiger, and its not long before human and cat are forced to come to terms with one another if they are to survive their dire existence.

While this, the major part of the film, works nicely as an old fashioned survival story, especially as neither Martell, nor Lee treat Richard Parker as anything but a wild beast and the ironic humanity of the tiger's name is played up for all its worth. It is, however, the non-plot-driven elements that truly elevates both the mundane story and the film as a whole. Religion and existentialism come bubbling to the surface as Pi tries to come to terms with the loss of his family, his seemingly rapidly approaching mortality and finding purpose and reason in his hopeless predicament.

Rather than relying purely on soliloquies in which Pi narrates his survival through a succession of diary entries, Lee makes full use of film as a visual medium to most poignantly drive the film's themes home. Throughout Pi's journey he experiences kaleidoscopic visions of his own destiny, encounters with nature at its most majestic and a short stay on a very strange island and Lee ensures that each of these experiences are portrayed in such a way that the lines between magic and nature are blurred beyond recognition.

Life of Pi is hands down the the most spectacularly, stunningly beautiful film of the year that makes the best use of 3D since Hugo, but that Lee uses these magnificent visuals as something more profound and more moving than mere eye-candy is typical of just how much thought and care went into bringing the novel to life - an effort that matches the subtleties and subtext of truly great novels, with the sensory experience of film at its best.

Some might be turned off by the film's spiritual underpinnings, but honestly, that's their loss because Life of Pi is a tremendously rewarding watch that absolutely needs to be seen in 3D at the best cinemas possible. The race for best film at next year's Academy Awards officially begins here. Don't miss it.


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