Life of Pi, based on the same-titled 2001 novel (Booker Prize for Fiction in 2002) by Yann Martel, screenplay by David Magee (nominated for best adapted screenplay) is a lush and fanciful tale of a spiritual journal of survival. It is nominated for eleven academy awards, including Best Picture and Best Director (Ang Lee, Broke Back Mountain). Piscine Molitor Patel “Pi” (Suraj Sharma) is a young man whose fight to survive after having lost everything, including his parents and brother, is a kind of love story about the love of life, his own life, as exemplified in Richard Parker, the tiger with whom he is stranded on a life boat in the middle of the ocean.
Pi’s family departs its homeland of India --accompanied by their formerly owned zoo’s animals—on a ship bound for North America where they will sell the beasts and start a new life. When their ship goes down in a storm, only a few make it to the life boat. In addition to Pi and the Bengal tiger Richard Parker, there are the mama orangutan, a broken legged zebra, and a ravenous hyena. Each perishes until only Pi and Richard Parker remain. The hyena eats the zebra and orangutan; the tiger eats the hyena. To avoid becoming its next meal, Pi must catch enough fish and fresh water for the both of them. As the two move toward a mutual understanding, Pi, all the while evading the jaws of the tiger, discovers that caring for Richard Parker becomes Pi’s reason to live, just as Martel says the writing of this novel became the direction and purpose for his life.
Perhaps in some other year I would have voted it the best film of the year, but not this year with so many excellent films. Still certainly I found Life of Pi the most beautiful, and think that cinematographer Claudio Miranda deserves the Oscar. Any adjective of praise (magical, beautiful, miraculous, gorgeous) all apply here. Ocean becomes sky, sky, ocean, both firmament for glowing stars and phosphorous, fish and clouds, as the universe is gloriously united as one whole, a whole which includes Pi, and which he treats with reverence.
To dedicate one’s life to some purpose, or to belong to some greater whole than oneself, confers meaning to life where all, for each of us, is eventually lost. Disappointment, tragedy, death come to us all. In the interim, we strive for connection and meaning making, sometimes rewriting the facts to make bearable the tale. It turns out that Pi’s story may have been reworked, that the hyena is the ship’s cruel and culturally insensitive cook, who kills the zebra sailor and the orangutan, Pi’s mother, and eats them both and uses them for bait. That leaves Pi as the tiger, looking to find reason to save himself amidst his enormous survival guilt.