While there are many new films in the theaters this holiday season, “Life of Pi” seemed to be required viewing for me. As an interfaith educator, how could I not see a film, whose protagonist, a boy named Pi, is born a Hindu, loves Jesus and practices Islam? While Pi’s co-star is a 450-pound carnivorous Bengal Tiger, and I am not a fan of animal movies, the theme of interspirituality intrigued me. And as a person of faith, how could I pass up the opportunity to see a story that claims it will “make you believe in God”?
The reviewers seem to agree that Ang Lee’s gorgeous film, based on Yann Martel’s 1991 novel, is a stunning technological achievement. No argument there. The more sophisticated ones, however, refuse to be taken in by its alleged theology. The film “invites you to believe in all kinds of marvelous things,” says the New York Times, but “leaves you wondering if you saw anything at all.” Or to put it as Salon did, it is “radioactive hokum.”
I went with my daughter and returned a week later to see it again with my husband. I will gladly go back a third time with anyone who will come along, if only for the magnificence of Ang Lee’s visuals, the brilliance of first-time actor Suraj Sharm and the opportunity to hear if my companion agrees with the critics. I do not.
I think the critics are missing something. The film tells a single story in two versions, only one of which is shown on the screen. At the end, it poses a question: “Which version do you prefer?” followed by the comment: “So it goes with God.” The New Yorker reviewer called that, “the most howlingly presumptuous and vapid line of dialogue I’ve heard in a movie this year.” If I saw that exchange as the key to the meaning of the film, I might agree. And though I would not say it so arrogantly, I might also agree with the one line Twitter comment: “Ang Lee’s Life of Pi brings you closer to God the way Skittles bring you closer to rainbows.” Fortunately, I do not think that is the point.
No doubt, the film does want to contrast, as Pi puts it, “dry, yeastless factuality” with the power of the imagination. On one level, the movie is — as some critics have noted — about believing in art. It is not incidental that the overall frame of the screenplay has the adult Pi telling his story to a novelist who is in search of a new plot. But the ability of stories to create transcendent meaning is just the start. I do think the movie is about God, but not the kind of God one chooses to “believe in” or not, who is featured in lush stories with animals rather than in dryer, flatter, more prosaic accounts. It is certainly not about a God who explains why people suffer and redeems all evil. This is not a God whose story one necessarily would “prefer.”
I understood the movie to be about living in relationship with the mystery at the heart of all life. Some call that mystery God, others use different names. But as the film itself reminds us, names are a tricky business. (Due to a clerical error, the tiger, Richard Parker, has a human name.) From an early age, Pi is drawn to the mystery. He reaches out to God in every language he can find, while his father, a rationalist of the New India, tries to impress upon him the value of cold, hard science. The young Pi also wants to connect with Richard Parker, at this point still a caged animal in Pi’s father’s zoo. Pi’s father does succeed in teaching him the danger of that particular longing. In the version of the story we see on film, as a result of a shipwreck, Pi finds himself on a life boat with the very tiger he both loves and fears. In awe of what soon becomes his only companion, Pi must figure out how to survive.
Richard Parker is magnificent, terrifying and inscrutable. Often, he is hiding. Pi soon despairs of ever fully taming Richard Parker, but, as Pi puts it, he tries to at least “train him.” At one point, Pi has the option to be rid of the tiger forever, but he chooses to take him back, knowing that his struggle with Richard Parker is keeping him alive. Pi wants more than to simply triumph over his companion or even to reach a détente, to endure. Pi wants a relationship.
Later in the film, Pi narrates another version of the story, not shown on the screen, one that is quite horrifying and lacks any wondrous animals. But, as Pi says, neither version of the story explains why the boat sank in the first place; neither version is without its terror. The story with the animals, presumably the “God” story, is no sweet pie-in-the-sky theology, as the critics seem to assume. The Slate critic asks: “If the tiger isn’t just a tiger but a stand-in for God or nature or the universal Other, do we still need to worry about him chomping off Pi’s arm?” I don’t know about you, but my God takes arms, not to mention whole persons, frighteningly often. This is not a simple story of the value of enchantment, a “sugar coated revelation.”
In one of the last scenes in the movie, Richard Parker reveals that Pi’s love for him is not reciprocated. In fact, he apparently has no interest in Pi at all. It is an absolutely devastating moment, one so powerfully realized that I completely forgot the tiger was only an animal, and a computer generated image at that. I wept. In the end, it is not about preferring one version or another, of “believing” in God or not believing in God. Like Pi, some people simply can’t help but see the universe as Thou, even if that Thou — at once gorgeous and terrifying — is largely indifferent to us. Nevertheless, the effort to connect sustains us.