BY GLENN PALMEDO-SMITH
“Life of Pi” is a must-view for thinking people. Albeit, the first 30 minutes screens like most foreign films, but if you stick with it, it blossoms into a full-scale magical mystery tour.
Magnificently shot, with unbelievable computer generated graphics, the “reveal” of this flick is the moment you realize this film can only be appreciated via others’ religious and cultural affiliations. The story (and I presume the book that it’s based upon by Yann Martel – a Canadian) ambitiously aspires to explore the “Story of Man” — Who are we? How did we get here? Where are we going? The tale begins today with a Canadian writer interviewing Pi, who was raised in an Indian hotel and zoo – call it The Peaceable Kingdom. As a youth, Pi studies many religions, attempting to become a Christian, Buddhist and Muslim at the same time. However, as a teenager, he and his family must sell the hotel, liquidate the animals overseas and move to a new world — the Americas. The director, Ang Lee (Hidden Dragon, Crouching Tiger and Brokeback Mountain), is always in on the joke: example – “Columbus sailed seeking India, but found America. Here, an Indian is seeking America, but finds himself.”
The action begins when a Japanese freighter (Noah’s Ark), along with the zoo’s inhabitants and Pi’s family, sinks in a violent tempest storm. Alone on a lifeboat, Pi soon finds a zebra, a monkey, a hyena, a rat and a tiger scrambling to board. If you’re, say, a Buddhist, Hindu or Taoist, you might see this as Pi’s journey to Nirvana and the movie as yin or yang; it’s serene and then violent. If it’s sunny, it’ll storm. Good/Evil. Wet/Dry. Justice/Injustice. Eating and being eaten. When Pi’s alone with Tiger, after all others are relegated as snacks, flying fish biblically fill the boat –– yet Tiger wants only Pi’s fish. From this viewpoint, we learn that human characters are presented as being: The Year of the Tiger (Pi), the Horse (Zebra as sailor), the Monkey (as mother), the Dog (Hyena as cook), the Rat (simply as rat) or the Goat (depicted earlier in movie). The last two serve story merely as provisions for the others. Have I lost you yet?
If you’re Muslim, perhaps you’ll view Tiger as Allah, and Pi as Man; where man must respect and follow Allah at all times, dealing with and serving him daily – with Pi always respectfully kneeling towards Mecca, (the lifeboat with Tiger), from a floating and tethered mat. As Bill Moyers states in his book, Genesis, “This God, is a mean God” and this tiger is very, very scary –– yet impossible to look at without complete fascination and awe.
If of the Jewish faith, you might see Pi’s father as all-knowing Abraham and Pi as the wayward son seeking guidance from father’s teachings, while Pi spends the next hour and a half “suffering” as he’s attached to the hip with a savage, raging and hungry tiger –– mankind? Or, perhaps a bitter descendant of Abraham’s “other” wife, Hagar, (please chuckle -- ah, the guilt of it all).
The Christians? They might see Pi’s father as God, (once ruler of the Peaceable Kingdom), and, the once-caged and now loose Tiger as the Devil himself, who Pi (Jesus) eventually finds himself delusionary and alone with, amidst the desert-like sea, having one long conversation with each other, or with himself. When this son of God (in the likeness of father) arrives with Devil beast on a floating island, Earth, which is inhabited by Meerkats, the creatures embrace their newest arrival, idolizing and rejoicing in Pi as Savior, to best lead the way, with the Devil coming along as part of the deal.
And finally, when descendants of the great Aztecan and Mayan cultures see this movie, especially just before Pi washes ashore in physical Mexico, they’ll perhaps see the fanciful floating island, appearing as snake-roots supporting ancient Aztlán, as a place that feeds you, yet eventually feasts upon you; as described in the legendary book, The Hungry Woman, by John Bierhorst. Here, most religions have no relevance, with the tiger and story simply representing “white man” from old Eden, (under the auspices of Pi being the benevolent Christ), coming ashore to ruthlessly rule and devour indigenous inhabitants of new Eden.
Thus, the vision of this single story representing each cultural perspective, seen as one wishes to see it, is indeed the point. When Pi inquires the tiger of what he sees, as the animal gazes upon nightly stars, the tiger “shows” Pi the wonder of the universe, as the stars morph into a giant image of mother –– mother as nature, nature as mother. Thus, can any of us really know God? Like the sun, should we dare gaze or scrutinize upon it? Will our eyes and brains fry? As a child, Pi’s father warns him not to trust the tiger (God), not to be fooled, as we only see a reflection of what we believe we are. At the end of the movie Pi asks the interviewer, “Which of these versions do you like most?” Of which the writer states he likes the most symbolic one –– who will then presumably script the story for the ages, thus encouraging future generations to interpret and, perhaps, start wars over.
Glenn Palmedo-Smith is a multiple Emmy Award-winning film director, producer and writer. He has also received many national “Best of Fests” awards. He is the author of Discovering Ellis Ruley, Crown Publishing. If you’d like to share comments with the writer, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org