Sunday, December 2, 2012

'Life of Pi' (2012) directed by Ang Lee, 2nd December 2012

'Life of Pi' by Ang Lee is beautiful both aesthetically and structurally.  It's paradoxical in that the less we see on screen, the more meaningful the film becomes - attaining a kind of Zen minimalism.  Based on Yann Martel's 2001 novel of the same name Lee has succeeded in 'filming the unfilmable'.  The film tells us the story of Pi, a teenage Indian boy who finds himself in the middle of the Pacific Ocean sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger with the unlikely name of 'Richard Parker'.  We hear this story from the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan).  He quickly and efficiently gets us up to speed by recounting his childhood in India.  As he grows up the character is played by Gautam Belur, Ayush Tandon and finally Suraj Sharma.  

These performances are uniformly excellent.  The early sequences of the film showing Pi's early childhood feel like a lyrical update of Satyajit Ray's 'Pather Panchali', and there are echoes of Subir Banerjee's performance as the young Apu in Gautam Belur's Pi.  As we see the character grow up these performances meld seamlessly into one another.  It's Suraj Sharma as the shipwrecked Pi that is the obvious stand out though.  For a performance that I'm guessing was primarily projected at a green screen, or a paper tiger's head on a pole it's quite stunning.  By the midway point of the film we can see the wisdom accumulating in his eyes as he develops a system of living in his bizarre predicament.  Although Pi generally remains stoic and calm there are moments when he's screaming at the sky during raging storms. It's a performance that feels complete: by the end of the film we've seen the character pushed to every conceivable emotional limit and Sharma does it without putting a foot wrong.

Over the course of this film Ang Lee proves himself a master of modern cinema.  This is a film-maker harnessing the very cutting edge of technology, processes generally only used in multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbusters, and using them to create an intensely personal film about the nature of God, faith and nature.  I generally try to avoid 3D films, I was impressed by 'Avatar' and 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams', but everything I've seen since then has felt a bit desperate.  My feelings stem from the idea that I've never watched a classic film and thought "you know, that was good, but it was a bit 2D".  'Life of Pi' goes some way to melting this scepticism.  Lee's use of 3D transforms images and sequences that would be 'just' beautiful into something jaw-dropping.  The last big 3D film I saw was 'Brave' and the impressive effects in that  just made me think "that's a nice bit of computing, I wonder how they did that".  'Life of Pi' avoids this by being so visually lyrical that you'd have to be a soulless machine to sit there wondering about the pixels and polygons used to construct these environments.  

Frequently there are shots so awe inspiring that it taps into an illogical part of the brain.  I wanted to try and analyse these, to try and pick apart the artistic and religious illusions in them, but you get bludgeoned over the head with so much beauty that it leaves you a bit woozy.  There is one sequence in particular where the surface of the sea is as flat and smooth as a piece of glass, with the effect that the lifeboat appears invisibly suspended between a seamless sky and sea.  I'm not doing it justice with this description, and I'm wary of spoiling some of the film's beauty, but this film contains images you really have to see for yourself.  

The film is insanely gorgeous from the off.  The opening credits are as 'simple' as showing animals in a zoo going about their business, but Lee photographs them with a care and intelligence that gives their movements grace and meaning.  Much of this film concerns itself with the division between man and beast, and appropriately the film is packed with exotic animals of all shapes and sizes.  These animals are primarily rendered in CG and the danger here is that the film turns on feeling the vibrant life pumping through these animals, of being able to see into their eyes and feel something looking back at us.  So if these graphics don't convince, the film fails.

Aside from the various actors playing Pi, the co-star of the film is Richard Parker, a 450lb Bengal tiger.  He's (nearly) entirely computer generated, and the film conveys a lot through his eyes.  In many ways it's more difficult to render a realistic tiger than the alien monsters of 'Avatar'.  We know what a tiger looks like, we know how it moves and behaves.  Any flaws in his appearance and creation will be magnified, and if we don't buy him then the film falls flat.  He's an absolutely realistic creation, at once dignified while also feral and savage.  The film repeatedly underlines that Richard Parker is not a cuddly cartoon animal, he's vicious and for all that Pi does for him over the course of the film the tiger cares nothing for him.

All of the film's visual wizardly isn't simply to dazzle the audience.   'Life of Pi' tells you straight up that it's going to tell you a story "that will make you believe in God".  Religion runs through 'Life of Pi' like lead through a pencil, but despite this it almost totally avoids  feeling preachy.  Pi is shown as fascinated by religion, becoming simultaneously a Hindu, Christian and Muslim.  He practices all three faiths at once, leading another character to joke that if he joins a few more religions he'll be on holiday all the time.  This device allows the film to transcend being 'about' any one religion and concern itself with bigger concepts of faith and the place of humanity in the world.  The 'God' of this film is treated in an Einsteinian way; the concept of an active, anthropomorphic deity is rejected.  God in the 'Life of Pi' is a spiritual presence shown throughout the film in the images of harmonious beauty presented to us.  

To talk any more about the themes in this film I'll have to resort to spoilers, so if you don't know the plot of the book or haven't seen the film I'd stop here.  'Life of Pi' joins 'Skyfall' and 'Samsara' as the capstone of a beautiful year in cinema, as well as being both narratively and structurally satisfying.  Go and see it!

'Life of Pi' is on general release in the UK from December 20, 2012.

Spoilers begin here

'Life of Pi' tells us a story that is conscious of its own ridiculousness.  The story is told with such verve that we pretty much accept what it tells us at face value.  We're on board with it despite the fact that we recognise how far-fetched it is.  This makes it incredibly jarring towards the end of the film when we're presented with an alternate story of Pi's survival that  is far more realistic and far more depressing.  We hear how rather than being stranded with animals, he was stranded with two other passengers and his mother.  This situation spilled over into violence and cannibalism, leaving Pi alone as the only survivor.  The film then engages in auto-analysis, explaining how the different aspects of the story we've seen are symbolic of what really happened: Pi is the tiger, a cruel cook was a hyena, Pi's mother was an orangutan and a passenger with a broken leg was an injured zebra.

The film then asks us to choose which one to believe in.  One is a life-affirming tale of survival, and the other a crushing tragedy.   Given the choice, the obvious answer is the beauty and lyricism of the tiger story.  This choice is then explained as akin to belief in God.  If the end result is the same, why should we want pick the more likely, yet more miserable option?  If the results are ultimately the same (Pi survives and everyone else dies in a shipwreck) what does it matter how we get there?

My initial reaction to being presented with this choice was annoyance.  Is the film really telling us that a comforting lie is preferable to reality? Is its big argument for the existence of God that it's something you may as well believe in because what harm does it do?  I profoundly disagreed with this stance and left the cinema a little disappointed that such an enjoyable film had ended philosophically half-baked.

I thought a bit harder later and I realised what's key is how the film had presents its two stories.  The fantastical tiger story is involved, emotional and beautiful.  We're taken on a tour of nature in all its incredible beauty, to the surreal limits of our world.  The realistic story is told to us matter-of-factly by Pi in his hospital bed.  There are no flashbacks showing us what happens, Pi tells us the story in long, unbroken shots and it plays out in our imaginations rather than what we see on screen.  

This contrast between where the two stories are visualised is important.  It's telling that the key player in the realistic version of the story is the cook, played by GĂ©rard Depardieu.  He has maybe four or five lines in the whole film, and is on screen for about a minute.  Why hire such a recognisable actor for such a small role?  I think it's because this allows us to more clearly visualise Pi's 'realistic' story.  The audience becomes an army of personal film directors during this sequence, making subconscious choices in how to visualise the story we've been presented with the tools Lee's given to us.  

The effect of this self-directed film playing within our heads is to underline the realistic version as what deep down we know actually happened.  By the time Pi's story ends we have witnessed two versions of it, one beautiful, comforting version on celluloid, and one playing out amidst our own jumbled neuroses.  Viewed like this the film doesn't become an argument for believing in God: it becomes an argument for the desire to believe in God.  We can know deep within our bones that there's no guiding force in the universe, that we project our own light into the tiger's unfeeling eyes, but that doesn't mean we aren't susceptible to wanting to believe that the world is as beautiful and harmonious as Ang Lee presents it.

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