As a master of filming the unfilmable, Ang Lee has wrought another masterful drama out of a difficult source. In this case, it is Canadian writer Yann Martel's legendary novel, Life of Pi.
At various times in its two hours-plus, with the elements combining like tendrils of a vine, the film is tragic, exhilarating, gorgeous, savage, brutal, terrifying, tender, pedestrian, grand, profound and revelatory. This is adult fare for mature audiences, although youths might engage with the adventure-drama. I would not recommend it for most children.
The reason that Life of Pi was so challenging to film is because Martel's 2001 creation is a mystical journey. It is alive with symbolic meaning, fantastical events and the magic of storytelling. Not everything you hear, read or see is literally the truth. The Big Truth is something grander in this saga about a teenager, Piscine Molitor (Pi) Patel, who is lost at sea after a shipwreck. A hungry Bengal tiger is Pi's only companion in a life raft for most of his 227-day journey east across the Pacific Ocean.
Because of the way that Lee shot his film -- especially in the 3D version that adds to the phantasmagorical aura Martel conjured and Lee depicts -- Life is Pi the film is as elusive as Martel's book. The mystical is dealt with in the same careful, thoughtful manner as it is in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life and in the finer, non-action passages of Ridley Scott's Prometheus.
Firing our imaginations with what we see on the screen is a radically different process from doing so from the page, where the mind runs free. Lee (Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) does the job with grace. There are so many man-against-nature scenes worth noting I will only cite one: Pi is swamped when a whale breaches next to his raft while the sea blooms with a phosphorescent glow. These things can and do happen in real life, but in Life of Pi they become a magnificent spectacle. Likewise for seeing the tiger as a manifestation of Mother Nature.
Lee deliberately shoots the bookends for Pi's adventure in conventional fashion (with the finale ranking as the least satisfactory part of the film). As a middle-aged Montrealer, Pi (played here by Irrfan Khan) tells a curious writer the story of his youth. We learn how Pi grew up in Pondicherry, India, then left as a teenager with his family and their zoo animals on a freighter bound for Canada. French actor Gerard Depardieu plays a cook, serving slop with his racism, illuminating the banality of stupidity. A storm suddenly sinks the ship and the story focuses on Pi alone, except for the tiger named Richard Parker.
The teenaged version of Pi is played by Suraj Sharma. Astonishingly, given how wonderful he is throughout, this is Sharma's first acting job. It speaks to his naturalism and charisma, and also to Lee's sublime talents as a filmmaker.
At the end of Life of Pi, you will have shared this epic adventure and stared into the face of terror and tragedy. But I expect you will also joyously rise with Pi's spirits as he explores what it means to be alive, what it means to search for his god alone at sea. Even with a tiger in your boat.
This film is rated PG.