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Dialogue: 'Life of Pi'? Oh, for God's sake

In matters of faith, the thing the movie most engenders is not God but cinema writ large.

January 19, 2013|By Vincent Brook
  • Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel prays in the movie "Life of Pi."
Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel prays in the movie "Life of Pi." (Rhythm & Hues / 20th Century…)

In his recent Calendar article on religiously tinged films ["Faith Makes a Hollywood Comeback," Dec. 30], critic Stephen Farber singles out Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," based on the like-named novel by Yann Martel, from a quartet that includes "Les Misérables," "The Sessions" and "Flight." Although Farber rightfully zeros in on "Pi" as "the most intriguing of these current movies," from a religious standpoint, I believe he misses the mark on its most intriguing aspect.

This, for Farber, consists of looking "beyond Christianity to encompass a broader view of religious commitment." I see the film as subverting (albeit inadvertently) the very notion of such commitment and diverting it instead onto the cinematic apparatus itself.

Pi's religious quandary is foregrounded and shrouded in the title. As the eponymous Indian protagonist — self-nicknamed "Pi" — explains early, the deeper meaning of the mathematical symbol pi lies not merely in its representing the ratio of the diameter of a circle to its circumference but in its being an irrational number whose decimal configuration is nonrepetitive and never-ending. A dialectic of reason and faith is thus established in Pi's very person, one compounded by family dynamics.

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Whereas Pi's scientifically inclined father is dismissive of religion, Pi overcompensates by embracing not just one but a handful of them. Where the film comes down on the issue is foreshadowed when the American writer — to whom the adult Pi relates his extraordinary tale of survival as a young boy — says he was told that this story "will make you believe in God."

The story we see, in flashback, is indeed miraculous. Pi is the sole survivor not only of a shipwreck that kills his family and everyone else onboard but also of several months adrift on the ocean in a lifeboat with a vicious if strikingly beautiful Bengal tiger. Farber interprets the fabulous tale in relation to the spiritual odyssey young Pi undertook before the shipwreck. His attraction to Hinduism, Christianity and Islam (and later, mystical Judaism) stemmed from their ability to craft "myths to provide meaning, mystery and hope," which arguably are "no less relevant than purely scientific accounts."

The adult Pi affirms this notion in relating, sans flashback imagery, an alternative survival story. Although far less wondrous than the tiger-driven version, this "nihilistic tale of human savagery and cannibalism" had proved more credible to the shipwreck's insurance investigators. When asked which of the two he prefers, the writer obviously opts for the tiger tale, to which Pi responds, with an impish grin: "And it's the same way with God."

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What we are left with, seemingly, is a watered-down version of Gabriel Marcel, Martin Buber and Paul Tillich's "spiritual existentialism" — a dredging of transcendent "meaning, mystery, and hope" from the material world (or as Farber puts it, "the possibility of larger forces at play in an indifferent universe"). Fair enough — were it not that using Pi's fable as Exhibit A on behalf of "The Mystery of Being" (Marcel), "I and Thou" (Buber) and "The Courage to Be" (Tillich) leaves this agnostic viewer, at least, stranded at sea.

To ascribe spiritual transcendence as deriving from a horrific disaster that killed one's family and scores of others, and whose subsequent ordeal was overcome not by divine intervention but by rational intelligence and pluck, seems rather a brief for sadomasochism and hubris than religious belief. If surviving a mini-holocaust is the way to "make you believe in God," spare me (and those who perished that I might live).

But of course it's not a mini-holocaust but its recounting that serves as the springboard for this "leap of faith" — and therein lies the tale. Pi's ear-witness writer, and the novel's readers, may have been momentarily uplifted by "a compelling form of storytelling," as Farber puts it, but the 3-D movie's audience is ultimately enthralled not by the philosophical-theological niceties but by the sheer, thrilling, CGI-enhanced spectacle of it all.

The "faith" that Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" most engenders, in other words, is not in God but in Cinema writ large.

Brook is a media studies professor at USC and UCLA and author of "Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles."

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