Life of Pi is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen.
Visually, and narratively, even musically, it is a wonder and a delight for the senses, a triumph for director Ang Lee who took a novel largely regarded as “unfilmable” – I am not sure by whom as the novel, though largely about the titular character’s many weeks adrift on a lifeboat, sings with a lyrical and descriptive beauty that played like a visual feast in my mind as I read it years ago – and created what must be regarded as one of the most breathtaking movies to ever hit the big screen.
A grand expansive claim yes, but well warranted.
From the opening scenes in Pondicherry India’s Botanical Garden, referred to as the “French Riviera of the East” after its time as a French possession (before being handed back to India in 1954), the movie comes alive with scene after evocative scene that bring alive the book even more beautifully than my highly imaginative mind rendered it.
How often can you say that about a movie?
And the rich, lush visuals are consistently beguiling throughout.
Even in the opening credits, which in most movies (Bond movies notwithstanding) are rolled out with almost perfunctory disdain, Life of Pi treats us to shot after artistically-framed shot of the various animals and birds that inhabit the zoo in Pondicherry that Pi (Suraj Sharma), whose full name, Piscine Molitor Patel, was inspired by a swimming pool in Paris, calls home.
The most arresting shot is of the resident tiger, Richard Parker (his real name “Thirsty” was mixed up with that of the hunter who captured him on the official paperwork) languidly strolling out of sight, only his reflection visible in the sun-dappled pool he is passing by.
Thereafter, I found myself gasping repeatedly in delighted astonishment at the lush recreation of the novel before me.
Ang Lee and his team were even able to transform a simple scene of Pi’s Mamaji (an uncle not related by blood) doing laps in a pool into an almost fantasy-esque moment where he appears to be swimming across a cloud-dappled sky.
And the later on when the ship carrying Pi, his family and all the animals in the zoo to a new life in Canada sinks in a fearsome storm, there is even beauty there as Pi, thrown into the roiling waves from his lifeboat, floats suspended above the still lit carcass of the sinking freighter.
It is awful and beautiful all at once.
There is scene after gorgeous scene that catch your breath – flying fish swarming across the ocean in a ceaseless stream, the lifeboat and Pi’s raft floating atop a sun-soaked smooth glassy sea the morning after a storm, a floating island populated by meerkats and Banyan trees that appears from nowhere – all so luminously lit that you feel as if you in a world that is half life-challenging reality and half magically-created fantasy.
That is no mean feat for a movie whose subject matter – the loss of your entire family, the end of life of you know it, and the desperate fight to hang on to what is left of it – is almost unremittingly grim.
But it captures perfectly the almost spiritual nature of the book, which while acknowledging the terrible sadness and trauma in all these events, seeks to dwell on the human spirit and its almost inexhaustible (I say almost because the reserves are not infinite as Pi discovers after weeks at sea) will to survive, no matter how daunting the odds.
And Pi, as we discover early on, is the perfect embodiment of that spirit.
Faced with endless taunting at school about his name – “Piscine” is quickly, and predictably, changed to “Pissing” by his school mates – he faces it head on, creatively lecturing all his classmates about what his name means, that it contracts to Pi which he would prefer to be called, and in one scene where you simply want to cheer him on, writing Pi (the mathematical term) to a seemingly endless number of decimal places as everyone, teachers included, gather to watch.
It is also evidenced by his endless curiosity about the world around him.
You see it in his questioning of his teenage love Anandi’s dance moves and why she does what she does and when, his adoption of three faiths simultaneously (Hinduism, Christianity and Islam) because all make sense to his forever enquiring mind, and his willingness to challenge instruction from his parents (even as he absorbs everything they say and learns from them).
His is an indomitable, always-questioning spirit, and it serves him well when the freighter sinks and he is lost at sea, with only a tiger, a spotted hyena, an Orang-utan called Orange Juice and a zebra with a broken leg for company.
And as nature takes it course, he finds himself alone with a hungry tiger, and not many other options on an endless open sea.
Yes he questions what has happened, why he has lost everything he loves, why his only hope for survival is compromised by the presence of a ravenous beast metres from him, and why all the gods he has given his allegiance seem to have, in turn, abandoned him, but somehow, even as death seems to be tightening its grip to a chokehold, he hangs on doggedly to a shred of faith that says there is an underlying reason for everything that has befallen him, and that he may yet survive.
And its this ability to keep fighting for his life, and to find wonder even in the midst of a nightmarish situation – his child-like joy when the bio-luminescent jellyfishes appear is a thing of almost transcendant joy – that brings life and vitality to the scenes where he is lost at sea, which comprise the bulk of the movie, and could easily have been terminally boring if Ang Lee and newcomer Shuraj Sharma hadn’t so expertly brought this quality to life.
The music too is divine, the lilting Indian influenced melodies and harmonies matching the moods of both Pi and the ocean around him so perfectly that we stayed in our seats right to the end of the closing credits simply to hear the last of it.
Ang Lee’s greatest triumph with the Life of Pi I think is the fact that it neither becomes a turgid spiritual polemic, nor an unremittingly bleak fight for survival but rather an achingly beautiful paean on every level to all that is lost, and gained, when life comes down to the basics of simple survival.
I can guarantee that you will utterly absorbed into, and entranced by, the Life of Pi which has that rare ability among modern movies (or any movies really) to still an entire restive cinema audience to silence, and move them in ways they didn’t think possible.