Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Life of Pi

The Writer: You're a Hindu Catholic?
Pi: We get to feel guilty before hundreds of gods.
When I entered the theater I knew virtually nothing about the movie, except that there was something about a boy on a raft with a tiger. As it turns out, that is all I needed to know for this astonishing, thought provoking movie.

Pi (Suraj Sharma) is a sixteen-year-old Indian boy, who survives a shipwreck only to find himself adrift on a lifeboat with a 450 pound, ferocious Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. Pi's intelligence and ingenuity are stretched to the limit in surviving on the open seas while figuring out how to coexist with a tiger who is getting hungrier every day.

This story is told by the middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan) to an aspiring writer (Rafe Spall) who has been told that Pi's story is worthy of a book. He also has been told, "you had a story that would make me believe in God" which is not quite tossed out as a challenge, although he hastens to add that he does not believe in God. This framework provides a neat parallel to the story Pi tells, which begins with young Pi's constant search for God as he grows from a little boy to a teenager.

Obviously we know that Pi survives the shipwreck because he is telling the story. However that soon becomes forgotten as we are swept up in Pi's struggles. Wound around and through this are amazing images of the world all around him. Using 3-D technology, we are shown vertical views from the bottom of the ocean to the heavens above, with all the inhabitants in between. These views through ultra-clear water add to the wonder and mystical tone of the entire story, as Pi's despair and hope alternate while he surrenders himself to God's will.

Meanwhile, viewers wonder what in this tale will be compelling enough to convince the writer to suddenly believe in God. The answer to that question is one that kept us thinking and discussing the movie the rest of the evening and the day after.

I was really surprised to find a movie with such emphasis on faith and God from such a famous director. I suppose that shows that it really is revolutionary these days to have faith. As I watched, I kept thinking of the stories of Job and Jonah from the Old Testament. This story is a modern version of those tales because it is an examination of modern attitudes to faith, free will, and our response to God. Kudos to Ang Lee for providing an incredible adventure story that didn't soft pedal the religious elements of the book from which it was derived.

PG rating on this movie and I'd say that as long as your kid is ok with animals acting like animals (nature red in tooth and claw), then you're good to go.


The key to the movie, and especially to the puzzling dual story solution given at the end, is the family dinner when Pi's father talks about the need to be rational. Pi's mother says that he is right if one wants to know the truth about the outside world. However, she adds, faith is good for knowing the truth about what is inside you.

This duality is continued through elements like Pi's name. Piscine is named for the French swimming pool his uncle loved because it was full of such clear water. That name shows Pi's connection to the natural world and his ability to look through the depths for what is really there.

His shortened name, for the number Pi, shows a more rational side, but also Pi is an "irrational number" as the narrator told us ... which made me think that pi is actually a stunningly good way to refute people who want to solely believe in facts, without considering that "truth" comes in many ways. The idea that a number just keeps going and can't be "solved" is in itself a sort of refutation of those who want everything nailed down. Do you chop it off at a few decimal places or do you let the numbers keep spinning out and keep searching the bottomless well for truth?

This also demonstrates Pi's intelligence and that he understands how others think and how to influence them. As well, we are shown he is well versed in the natural world when we see his father teach him with the tiger and the goat.

These elements raise the possibility that Pi's "other story" told to the Japanese investigators is completely fabricated to tell them what makes sense to modern ears and will fit into a report.

In the end, we are left with a new version of "The Lady or the Tiger?"

Either story may be true or false. The interpretation we resonate with is an indicator of our own souls.

The Life of Pi is much like the Old Testament, full of stories of daring and danger which do not make sense to our modern souls which like to weigh everything against concrete, understandable scientific measures. We are ready to call such tales Myth, but does our interpretation see the whole story? We accept the Big Bang, measurable echoes of which still linger, if we know what to listen for. However, Genesis says that God spoke the universe into being.

Creation begins with sound in both cases; one is measurable by science, one by the human heart who looks deeper, is willing to be vulnerable, and who is willing to chance all on God's love. Neither negates the other although there are those who will choose one and call the other false.

As we are reminded, none of us knows why the ship sank (or how the universe began). All we know is what happened afterward from our own vantage point.

Such is the story of Pi. It is not about what you choose to believe, as much as it is about where one finds Truth. Much in the same way that Genesis is a story of faith and not about the Big Bang, we can hold that both stories are true or that only one is. Which one do you choose?


  1. Can be called the twin brother of Avatar in the sense of ENTERTAINMENT. Integrated 3D special effects, holophonic sound effects and great team work makes this movie a worth watch.

  2. Here is something you probably missed, the Freighter and life boat are both called TsimTsum. Ok, probably a Japanese name. No - it's Hebrew for - contraction, diminution, becoming smaller, doing with less.

    Since Pi mentions that he teaches Kabballah, it was very clear to me that this wasn't an accidental choice of name.

    1. I COMPLETELY missed that! Thank you!

      That goes hand in hand with something I didn't mention in the review, which is that after Pi asks what else he must give up, they land on the island ... and he removes the thread bracelet from his wrist. He must give up his love in India.

    2. What about the tiger? Is it the evil side of pi as conditioned by his father by showing him the animal nature of the tiger? Or the guilt feeling rise from three fear of God. It has to be noted that tiger becomes more aggressive when he does things against God like killing the cook and eating fish meat being a vegan. when God showed himself before pi in form of thunder he was excited first but later he was frustrated to see the tiger scared at the presence of thunder and lightning. Does that mean he was over coming the fear of God and being oneself with the guilt feeling to understand it is not gult but himself. Which contradicts his father's theory that there is no soul to animals.

  3. Thank you for that insight, I thought it was giving up the love of the girl but you are right, she represented India. Although he married another expat he never returns to India.

  4. After seeing this movie twice in one week (!), I've been searching the Web for reviews written from a religious standpoint. THIS is the best review I've seen so far. (I guess I should have known that the best review would be from a Catholic -- and a "happy Catholic" at that!)

    Like you, I too kept seeing the books of Job and Jonah in it (plus Genesis, with that rainbow after the second big storm). I loved it that Pi finally "saw God" only after EVERYTHING had been taken away from him. It's like Job seeing God in the whirlwind -- and being ecstatic at the vision, no longer concerned with his losses. Just like Job, Pi had been persistent in calling out for God to speak to him. When he finally was brought to the end of himself... that was when God spoke.

    I loved it that a modern Hollywood movie ACTUALLY QUOTED JOHN 3:16 (the priest in the little church) -- how awesome is that!! I loved the way Pi kept demonstrating the four kinds of prayer: "Please" (show me Yourself); "I'm sorry" (over and over); "Thank you" (the gratitude that he not only expressed in prayer repeatedly but that also seemed to be his whole life-attitude); and "You're great" (especially during and after the second big storm).

    My second viewing was with a dear friend of mine who is an evangelical Protestant and a very joyful Christian. I'd never been able to completely "figure out" the meaning of the book or the movie, but she offered some insights that blew me away. Pi himself committed violence against the evil cook -- the first violence he'd ever committed in his life. I believe he was justified, just as I believe certain wars are justified, but let's face it, violence was not part of God's ORIGINAL plan; it is only part of a fallen world. The fact that we sometimes must engage in it to protect ourselves or others does not erase the horrible debt it incurs in the cosmic scheme of things, nor the scars it leaves on our own souls. But Jesus lifts these burdens from us, takes our sins away from us "as far as the east is from the west," as the Psalmist says. That is why Richard Parker -- who represents the fearsome violence inside Pi himself that had helped him survive -- disappears into the jungle at the end. The quiet, undramatic nature of his vanishing is like the gentle, light touch of Jesus as He simply TAKES OUR SINS AWAY. You notice, of course, that Pi is lying on the beach in a position like Christ crucified. And that he says, with 100% certainty, that he knows "two eyes" were watching him with care. In other words, a very PERSONAL God!

    When I asked my friend what she made of the "two stories, which do you prefer" puzzle at the end -- and Pi's enigmatic "and so it is with God" reply -- my friend said in her happy, enthusiastic way that without God our lives are hard and painful and joyless -- like the "logical" story Pi told the investigators. But WITH God in our lives -- the real, living God, not at all a projection of our own imagination as some secular readers and reviewers think the movie is saying -- with God in our lives, the world is full of wonder, and we see Creation infused with God's grace. Our miserable circumstances are transcended and transformed by God, transformed into non-stop wonder if we but have the spiritual eyes to see it. And not only does He make wondrous to us our own unique individual stories, but He sweeps us all of them up into HIS one grand wonderful story -- the story that began with Genesis, is still being written right this moment, and whose "happy ending" is described in Revelation.

  5. One more little rumination to add to my previous comments... In the book, Pi gives a lot of significance to color. In particular, he talks about the orange of the boat interior and of the life-jackets, and of how comforting that color is, since orange is the color of Hinduism, the old, familiar nest-like religion of his birth.

    That's the only religion-color connection he makes explicitly, but as a reader, I of course was looking for other religion/color links. After all, the first part of the book, the part set in Pondicherry, was all about Pi's journey through three religions. If the color of Hinduism is orange, then will the author associate particular other colors with Christianity and Islam?

    The middle section of the book involves a lot of blood -- the blood shed by the zebra and orangutan, the "innocent" animals; the blood of the first animal that Pi has ever killed, the fish whose life he "sacrifices" to share with Richard Parker so that they both might be nourished and live -- blood is red, and our salvation is through Jesus's blood. So I see Christianity as red.

    In the book, there's a big emphasis on how the carnivorous island is green, green, green. Well, as you may know, green has been for centuries the traditional color of guess what religion? ISLAM. (See, for example, What is the green, green island? Like Islam, it is initially alluring, but once you're in, it's almost impossible to escape. Like Islam, the island will feed you for a day but then eat you alive. It is characterized by mindless mass behavior (the meerkats), and it is a malevolent entity that strangles all individuality and chokes off genuine life, health and thriving.

    As for the blue, blue everywhere -- the ocean, the sky, the deep, beautiful matrix without which there is no story... I'll leave that one to you!

  6. Hi Heartlander! It is so nice to meet someone who thinks (and thinks and thinks) about movies the way that I do. When we've watched a movie in our family then there is nothing but lots of talk about it for days. If it is like Life of Pi anyway. :-)

    I hadn't thought about the color significance much but I recall that someone mentioned red being a significant color in much of the film. I never connected it the way you do with the orange and green themes. wow ...

    Although when you talk about blue, as a Catholic I think of Heaven and also of Mary. :-)

  7. As the resident Jew - can I say that blue is very important in Judaism. On the Talit and the Tzitizt - the wool strings hanging from the four corners, one needs one strand of blue.

    Hearlander - you have added so many dimensions to both the book and the movie! Thank you!
    I listened to a review over at the podcast Literary Disco - I've listened to a few episodes and am getting ready to remove this podcast.
    It is reviewed from a totally secular point of view - they don't 'get' the religious aspect of the story.
    Which is why I love Julie and Scots' podcast a good story is hard to find.

    It nourishes my soul to hear a religious discussion about literature and movies. Julie, I just listened to the Reapers are the Angels. Would you please please have that on the podcast soon! I so want to hear you and Scot discussing it!

  8. Leah, I am so very happy to hear your heartfelt support of Good Story! :-)

    Also, I love that point about the blue and Judaism. Especially when we recall that Pi teaches a Kabbalah (sp?) class.

    I'm also very happy to tell you that The Reapers Are the Angels was our very first podcast at Good Story! It is the book that finally made us stop talking about podcasting and do it! Here's the link! Enjoy!

    1. Julie, I appreciate your insight about blue representing Mary -- which never occurred to me until recently. Years ago, when I read the book, I interpreted the blue as Judaism, as Leah pointed out. Blue is so prevalent in Judaism. It was the color of the High Priest's outer garment; in Ezekiel's vision of heaven we see a sapphire throne; etc., etc., no wonder that blue is the color of Israel's flag!

      And thanks for the reminder about Pi teaching the Kabbalah class, that kind of confirms it!

  9. Yay! Going to listen now! Btw, I've been listening to Guys can Read because of you (I think) and they are closing down the podcast. It is hard to find really intelligent discussions of books. So if you have any more suggestions let me know!

    1. I stopped listening when they went to 2-part reviews. Have you tried Books on the Nightstand? That's where I discovered Guys Can Read.

  10. I tried it, don't like it, to me it's like NPR and I stopped listening to them years ago. I don't want the point of view of the cultural elite.
    I do listen to 2Knitlitchicks but really only for the knitting and the lovely banter between mother and daughter. I don't read their kind of books.

    Of course Heather at Craftlit is amazing - I truly enjoy her and her books.

    Yeah, 2 part review wasn't good but I so enjoyed their points of view, it was refreshing.

    1. I must admit that I only swing by Books on the Nightstand's blog occasionally or sometimes look through their forum at Goodreads. They are engaging but I never agree with them on books and when they didn't know what steampunk was I began to question their real knowledge of the broad publishing field. :-)

      I now realize that I really don't listen to any book podcasts anymore other than the occasional SFFaudio when their topic interests me. I can recommend The Tolkien Professor though. What with reading The Hobbit for the next Good Story, I tried it out and am really enjoying his commentary on Tolkien (though I'm skipping the Silmarillon stuff until after the things I've read).

  11. Hi Julie -

    I hope you don't mind. I posted this review to my blog. I recently reviewed the book, and I was a little more skeptical about the author's view of religion. My concern was that he was suggesting that religion (it doesn't really matter which one) and myth are just a lovely way of coping with great difficulties. But as a Catholic and a public high school English teacher, perhaps I try too hard to find the subversive hidden agenda in modern fiction. I did enjoy book and loved the movie. I actually like your take on the religious aspects of the story better than my own. Thanks for a great review.

    1. Posting a link is perfectly fine and if you wanted to put an excerpt that is fine too. :-)

      I enjoyed looking over your site which I will definitely be visiting again. Perhaps because of my own background growing up with atheistic parents or perhaps because I am friends with a lot of atheists, I felt it was a "do you or don't you believe" question rather than one of choosing a particular faith. Because, on the particular faith, I am with you. Almost all of them have those splinters of light that C.S. Lewis referred to, but one must find which faith has the truest reflection of the one Truth.

      If you listen to podcasts you might enjoy A Good Story is Hard to Find where my friend Scott and I talk about books and movies along these lines. :-)

  12. I loved this movie as well. Let's face it, there aren't too many films that demand reflection and conversation regarding what it was all about. The one thought I had about this that doesn't seem to be brought up is: Isn't Richard Parker God? I mean in Pi's dual story there are human analogs for the Hyena, Zebra, and Ape but not the Tiger. Early on, the Tiger is meant to be feared (Old Testament), yet later Pi cannot survive without him. Moreover, when the opportunity arises to let the tiger drown, Pi works to rescue him. (He chooses to keep God in his life.) Finally, when Pi finally reaches dry land safely, Richard Parker slinks away but is clearly still among the living. Maybe I'm oversimplifying but the ending moral paraphrased as "The Story is Better with the Tiger" fits in the world we live in. I know that my life is better with God's presence. Anyway, this film also brought to mind Jesus's final words about being with us always. A pretty comforting night at the movies if you ask me.

  13. Hi.. I just stumbled on this. What a wonderful discussion. So many aspects of the story reflected on and in the context of faith. A great read for a Sunday morning and cuppa coffee. Thank you! It's given me something to tghink about for certain.

    1. Thank you! Come back soon, y'hear? :-)

  14. I was actually quite surprised to see how few religious reviews/discussions there are on the internet, so I am quite glad to find this one.

    By way of interpretive ideas, let me add this one to the mix: there is a shot of the carnivorous island at night where you can see the entire island. It is a shot that is just a bit longer than you would expect. If you notice in that shot, the shape of the island is the shape of a person - on reclining, with the head to the left and feet to the right. Once you see it, you cannot "unsee" it.

    The nature of the island is perhaps the key to the whole story. The island at first is an Eden, a savior to him after months alone at sea, the answer to his prayers. It has food and water in seemingly limitless supply. Yet, it makes no sense. Why are all these meercats there? The chatter of the meercats is confusing and meaningless to Pi. He is surrounded by vibrant life, and yet still completely alone in his understanding of what is going on. Once night falls and the island becomes carnivorous, this island Eden turns out to simply be another form of hell. It is not the solution, but simply another form of captivity. He can spend the rest of his life clinging to this, assuming that this is the best chance he will ever have for salvation, or can can set out to find the real salvation of "terra fima". The island itself is characterized as being a floating island, untethered to anything.

    In this way, as Pi is both searching for salvation (land) and meaning (God), the island appeared to at first offer both. Yet, it became clear that it ultimately offered neither. It would only prolong his existence without ever really giving him "life."

    The shape of the island therefore is telling in how we can interpret this: when we search for salvation and meaning through humanity alone, the best we can hope for is something that looks a lot like Eden, but still will eventually destroy us, or at least keep us from finding true salvation.

    The island becomes the best one can hope for who merely wants a bit of relief rather than ultimate truth.

    While one can find some solace in rationalism and complete scientific thinking, there is still so much that our intellect cannot fully explain through mere scientific method. To accept that as the ultimate truth, we must be ignoring the many realities that are unexplained by those conclusions. It would be like Pi simply settling for the island as his only possible chance for salvation, and ignoring all that is wrong with the island.

    I agree with the previous insight about the ending, and personally believe the tiger story be the real one, and the explanation that "it is the better story" as the truth, that God loves to give us the better story, and to blow our minds with the impossible (virgin birth, resurrection, miracles, etc.).

    That's all. :)

    1. Wow. I never would have thought of that. From what I recall it makes perfect sense and it certainly would help explain the floating island. There was so little explanation that it made me wonder why it was included. Though, of course, I'm going to have to rewatch the movie with particular interest in the floating island part.

  15. MAY I REBLOG THIS??? Your review says absolutely everything I would have liked to, but much better. Plus it is great publicity for your blog...

    1. Richard, so glad you liked it! definitely you may ... just put a link back. :-)