Friday, November 30, 2012

Castaways: LIFE OF PI

There’s a moment early on in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi in which a little boy stays up past his bedtime with a flashlight under the covers, regarding a comic book with seriousness in his eyes. The panel he finds most fascinating shows a boy opening his mouth and inside can be seen the whole universe. Lee pushes his camera in until this drawn universe fills the frame. The compelling image can be read as the film itself in microcosm: a finely rendered but rather ordinary sight that opens up to reveal untold unexpected wonders. It’s a story within a story and the set-up moves along just fine, but it’s all rather standard stuff. It doesn’t really take off until its quite literally adrift.

This visual marvel of a film starts simply enough with a young author (Rafe Spall) arriving at the home of Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), a man who reportedly has a miraculous story to tell, a story so good it’ll make one believe in God. Those are lofty (unattainable) ambitions and although the scenes with the writer fall flat (through no fault of the great Kahn), what follows in between interview and narration are charming flashback sequences in which a young boy (Gautam Belur and Ayush Tandon) grows up in a small Indian town with his zookeeper father (Adil Hussain), mother (Tabu) and older brother (Mohd Abbas Khaleeli and Vibish Sivakumar). The little boy has a curiosity about animals and about spiritual matters. His father’s an atheist; his mother’s a Hindu. Soon enough the boy’s a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim. His father tells him believing in everything is no better than believing in nothing. Later, talk turns to the zoo’s inhabitants. “Animals have souls,” the boy says. No, the stern zookeeper replies. All you see in an animal’s eyes is your own soul’s reflection.

So, the film has set up a rather heavy-handed, if good-natured, exploration of the intersection between spirituality and the animal kingdom. That it locates this thematic terrain in a quaint little period piece elaborately embellished through visual trickery only adds to the slight charms. By the time the boy is on the cusp of adulthood (now played by Suraj Sharma), circumstances are such that the family is preparing to move to the United States. The animals are sold to American sanctuaries, placed in cages and loaded aboard a freighter that will give the family free passage. Pi is saddened by such a move, but must go along. The journey is unremarkable, at least until one dark and stormy night the boat suffers debilitating mechanical problems.

In a sensationally staged sinking, terrifying and convincing, the boat crashes through unforgiving waves, takes on water, and ultimately disappears beneath the waves. Pi, the only survivor, is left all by himself in a lifeboat with nothing but ocean as far as the eye can see. Soon enough, he finds that he’s not alone. He’s stuck at sea with a full-grown tiger, a situation that only compounds the teenager’s problems. In shock and mourning, he must learn how to survive at sea, make a small amount of food and water sustain him until rescue, and, of course, not get mauled by an enormous feline. Through fully believable effects work, this wild beast growls and stalks about the confined space, becoming a character without quite becoming humanized. He remains frightening throughout.

Largely wordless, the film’s framing device is gone, leaving only stunning images and phenomenal filmmaking. The expressiveness of the camera, the precision of the special effects, and the terrific, physical performance from young Sharma add up to an extraordinary portrait of extreme loneliness and the expanse this character must survive in order to achieve a return to society. Ang Lee, a versatile visualist capable of wonderful invention in many a genre picture from drama The Ice Storm and Wuxia Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon to superhero Hulk and tragic romance Brokeback Mountain, brings to what could be visual monotony a kind of breathless visual storytelling that creates indelible images. The reflective properties of the water creates striking vistas of multiplied sights and shifting color patterns; one nighttime shot doubles the starry sky so that the tiny lifeboat appears to float on a sea of stars. At one point, Pi nods off and dreams a hallucinogenic kaleidoscopic deep-sea vision that could almost be part of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s finale. A moment in which Pi is first confronted by the tiger and reacts by scrambling up over a canvas tarp and sliding around the bow of the boat has a scary/fun edge carefully regarded, the understated physicality of Sharma’s performance reminding me of nothing less than Jacques Tati or Buster Keaton. These images and more like them add up to a terrific cinematic experience.

By the end, though, the drifting boat – and drifting plot – comes to a resolution that I fear works slightly better as prose than on screen. Though I recall finding the conclusion of Yann Martel’s novel, upon which this film is based, of some interest, here it serves to underwhelm with it’s attempt to provide an alternate explanation in words for what we just saw so stirringly portrayed visually. I don’t think it adds up thematically in the ways the characters literally explain to us and it certainly didn’t affect any ideas I have about God, but that doesn’t much undercut the pure cinema at the film’s center. But for the majority of its runtime, Life of Pi is a transporting, enveloping feast of visual inventiveness and expressiveness, nestled inside a less satisfying film.

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