views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Life of Pi (PG)
Odeon, Panton Street
16th December 2012

★★★★☆

"What has Mamaji already told you?" an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) asks an unnamed writer played by Rafe Spall. Spall replies: "He said you had a story that would make me believe in God." And while Ang Lee's Life of Pi perhaps doesn't go that far, it certainly makes you believe in the power of storytelling and even in the much maligned format of 3D.

Firstly, the Ganesha in the room. Many critics have suggested this is an overtly religious film that, at the very least, overtly preaches to you. While I respect that viewpoint - and it certainly can be justified - it's just as valid to suggest this is a film more concerned about faith as a general concept, or even a beautifully constructed attack on religion. I have no idea if Yann Martel's novel is the same, but here ambiguity is the order of the day. This is especially evidenced at the film's climax, people are happier to print the myth than the truth. If you're expecting (either good or bad) a Passion of the Christ, or The Mission, or even The Chronicles of Narnia, you won't find it here. You'll find a considered, tolerant and enriching yarn, a buddy movie, a wholesome, honest story that is awesome in the truest sense of the word.

Now with that out of the way, back to the plot. Let's face it, if you've been to the cinema in the last six months, it's likely you've seen the trailer - the one that suggests lots of style and a lot less substance. So it's fair to say you think it's about a boy and his tiger on a boat for two hours. And it largely is. But there's a fair bit more to it than that.

We first meet an adult Pi, a Catholic Hindu who has flirted with Islam and teaches the Koran. His uncle has told the aforementioned writer about his amazing life, and Spall goes to interview him. We then flashback to his childhood, and how the lad goes from Piscine Molitor Patel to Pi (or from Ayush Tandon to the early 20s Suraj Sharma, if you prefer). His parents, having to sell-up their zoo, plan to emigrate from India to Canada ("Like Christopher Columbus") and take the animals with them. Like Columbus, though, things don't go entirely to plan and a shipwreck leaves Pi alone on a rowing boat with only the zoo's Bengal tiger, Richard Parker, for company.

And what a creation Richard Parker is. Technically and emotionally staggering, there's more character in him than every Michael Bay film ever made. It's as if Pixar moved into realistic territory, so packed with nuance and life is his "performance". Sharma more than meets the challenge set by Richard Parker as a compelling and immensely likeable protagonist. Level-headed, compassionate and unwavering in both his faith and ardent support of rationality, he marries a number of contradictions while not forgetting the emotion. Towards the end if the film especially, both he and Khan deliver a series of distressing and poignant moments with grace and subtlety.

It's helped along by David Magee's thoughtful and light script. It's not all navel-gazing and Castaway-lite depression. The first third especially is filled with warmth and a lot of humorous asides. Even during Pi's troubles, there are still jokes to be had, whether that be through Pi's attempts to train Richard Parker or his never-say-die diary entries.

But, unsurprisingly, the other real stars of the film are Ang Lee's visuals. Say what you like about Lee as a director (I have in the past) but his immense grasp of spectacle is second-to-none. In his acclaimed films, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, through to his... less successful... endeavours like The Hulk, a unique and clear vision is set immediately. As far as stylistic nuances, he's up there with Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino. In fact, many pieces here seem to mimic, in tone if not execution, Anderson's The Life Aquatic.

As for Steve Zizzou, in Pi's world, God is water. He gives and takes away, tests him, leads him away from his family but to land. He nourishes and destroys. And Lee never lets you forget it. One superb scene - which 3D seemed to be made for - sees all life come teeming from the water. In another, Pi looks into a deep pool which is freshwater by day, acid by night. The perfect composition of the shot has branches frame the water to make eyelids. Again, it's not in your face (unlike a couple of bits later), but it's a lovely touch given Pi to have seen Richard Parker's soul through his eyes. I could go on, but chances are, if you've seen the trailer, you already know.

One interesting aside is that Amélie and Micmacs director Jean-Pierre Jeunet was on board to helm this around 2007. He spent months taking photos and storyboarding the pieces, with the few I've seen looking very similar to what Lee has produced. While Jeunet's finished film would have been greatly different - I imagine much more whimsical - there are still tiny Jeunet-style flourishes here. The contorted, exaggerated body shapes of the cook (Gerard Depardieu) and Mamaji (Elie Alouf) being one signature move. I'm not suggesting anything other than an odd, intriguing coincidence.

So surely there are downsides, right? Well, yes. While a lot of the CGI is deliberately obviously CGI (in the same way that Anderson's fish are obviously stop-motion animation) there are times when what actually jars are the scenes clearly filmed in the studio. Your brain seems to be so used to happily shift to accept this fantastical world that when things are shot realistically - a bit with Pi drowning after water has run into the boat, for example - just seem, well, off. Another problem is the usual American heavy-handedness with metaphor. I can't say more without spoiling it, but it comes at the end, and you'll know it when you hear it. It just makes you cringe.

Still, this is Lee's new bid for Oscar glory, and quality oozes out of every pore. It's a well-judged, nicely balanced tale of western rationalism meets eastern mysticism. And no matter what you take out of it, religion, the joys of atheism, or simply the wonder of the natural world, you'll leave with a grin.

Life of Pi was released on 20th December 2012.

Nearest tube station: Piccadilly Circus (Bakerloo, Piccadilly)



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