Director Ang Lee creates an visual masterpiece from Yann Martel’s 2001 novel about Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, a boy shaped by his background as the son of a shopkeeper, and a striking multi-religious nature, practicing his mother’s Hindu religion, while at the same time adopting Catholicism and Islam, with a story which, as he tells us, “will make you believe with God.” The movie is well worth seeing, and the reader is warned that spoilers follow.
Pi’s father decides to sell his animals and move to Canada, travelling on the ship which carries them to their buyers. The ship sinks in a Pacific storm, and Pi is left with the companionship of a zebra with a broken leg, an orangutan, a hyena, and Richard Parker, the magnificent Bengal tiger. The hyena is rendered manic by the situation, and begins to tear at the flesh of the injured zebra for food, while the orangutan screams her rage. She strikes the hyena, who responds by killing her, after which Richard Parker visits the justice of the wild on him. Boy and tiger are thus the only survivors, and they form a fraught relationship of danger shot through with a cooperative spirit. Eventually, they land on a strange island of seaweed, banyan trees, hordes of meerkats with no fear of any creature, and deep pools offering fish for Pi’s sustenance; by night, the pools turn acidic, and Pi realizes that the island is carnivorous, luring prey with food and shelter. He flees, and with Richard Parker once again sets sail, eventually landing, exhausted and weak, on a Mexican beach. Richard Parker disappears into the trees, causing Pi to realize that they were never truly friends.
Martel inserts himself as a novelist seeking a story, to whom Pi recounts his journey years later. But, it turns out, there is another story, drawn out of Pi by the insurance agents who come to talk to him. This story recounts four survivors: a resourceful cook, a sailor with a broken leg, and Pi and his mother. The sailor succumbs to infection, and the cook uses his flesh to bait the fish and for his own dried meat. Pi’s mother is outraged, and attacks the cook, before she too is killed and thrown overboard. The cook then meets at Pi’s hands the same fate he had inflicted on the sailor. Martel notes that the zebra maps onto the sailor, the orangutan onto Pi’s mother, the hyena onto the cook, and Richard Parker on to Pi himself (one might also note that the carnivorous island echoes the descent into cannibalism, offering the lure of sustenance but instead eating away at his soul). When Pi asks which of the stories he prefers, Martel chooses the tiger. “And so it is with God,” Pi replies.
It is an entrancing portrayal of meaning-making; we choose to believe in God because the alternative is ugly and cruel. We might here see a parable for the quest for fulfillment of an insipid adherence to religion as but there is something deeper at work here. God is not a source of comfort in Life; God manifests through the storm, the lightning, and the ancient and relentless power of the sea, and through the tiger who keeps Pi alert, and never allows him to fall into Bunyan’s Slough of Despond, while at the same time constituting a constant menace to his life. After seeing this incredible story unfold, the viewer cannot relegate it to the dementia of a fevered mind and a tortured conscience; it remains terrifyingly true.
Pi does lack important tools in his argument for the existence of God; while the beautiful is displayed here in truly awe-inspiring proportions, an explicit metaphysical commitment to the objective nature of beauty is needed to give his proof of God the strength of a medieval argument from fittingness. Still, the strength and terror of encounter in Life echoes Kierkegaard’s leap from infinite resignation into faith more than feel-good religion; his apparent indifferentism remains problematic, but faith has a potency here which is rarely found in the contemporary religious climate.