erik lundegaard


Life of Pi (2012)


Promises are made at the beginning of Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi”—or at least one big promise. An unnamed writer (Rafe Spall), who is about the become the listener of the story we are all there to see—about a boy and a tiger on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean—has heard that this story will make him believe in God. Since he is by extension us, one assumes the story will make us believe in God, too.

Good! I thought. Sitting in the theater, a fundamentalist agnostic in the middle of a long, tired week, I was ready to believe in something.

So did it work? Did I come out of the theater believing in God?

Of course not. In fact, the fantastic story we hear, which may or may not be an illusion, but is certainly an allusion, almost discounts this belief.

Pi keeps going on

But before we get to that story we hear other stories about a young Pi Patel (Gautam Belur, Ayush Tandon) growing up in India. We get his early flirtations with religion: growing up Hindu; being perplexed and then attracted to the self-sacrifice inherent in the story of Jesus (“Thank you, Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ”); feeling calm when praying to Mohammed. The boy collects religions the way I used to collect baseball cards.

But the best story is the story of his name.

The Writer assumes Pi’s father was a mathematician, but the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan), in the middle of making him lunch, says the story is a bit more complicated. As good stories often are.

Pi had an uncle, Mamaji (Elie Alouf), who was born with water in his head, and the doctor whipped him around and around to get rid of it. From this, he developed the thin legs and broad chest of a swimmer, and a subsequent fixation on swimming pools. Whenever he traveled he had to check out the swimming pools in the area. His favorite was in Paris: Piscine Molitor. And when Santosh (Adil Hussain) and Gita Patel (Tabu) had a second child, a boy, that’s what they named him: Piscine Molitor Patel.

Pi loved his beautiful French name until one day in middle school when it morphed, at the hands of schoolboy wits and bullies, into the vulgar English verb pissing. He suffered for a year under that nickname. Then he came up with a plan. At the start of the new session, when the teacher called out the roll before each class, young Piscine would walk to the front of the classroom and tell everyone the new foreshortening of his name: Pi, as in 3.14, etc. But the schoolboy wits and bullies weren’t having it, and insisted he would still be Pissing. Pi anticipated that reaction. So in his last class, the math class, he not only gave a rudimentary definition of pi; he not only wrote “3.14” on the board, but he kept going. He wrote out, from memory, dozens of numbers, hundreds of numbers, in the equation pi. And it caused such a sensation that he accomplished his goal: he became Pi.

Now that’s a story.

Pi’s family runs a zoo in the former French quarter of Pondicherry, India, and young Pi, now 11, is fascinated with a Bengal tiger there, who was originally named Thirsty by Richard Parker, a hunter, but due to a clerical error the names were reversed: Thirsty, the hunter, brought in Richard Parker, the tiger. At one point Pi tries to feed Richard Parker meat from his hand. “You think the tiger is your friend?” his father yells at him. “He is an animal, not a playmate.” Pi insists animals have souls; he’s seen it in their eyes. So the father gives Pi something else to see with his eyes. He ties a goat to the bars of Richard Parker’s cage and forces his son to watch what happens.

In college, Pi (now Suraj Sharma) reads literature, feels restless, falls in love. Then his family is forced to move. They have to sell the animals and for some reason ride with them on a Japanese steamer to their new home in Canada.

This gets us to the story we’re expecting to see: about a boy and a tiger on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean.

The tiger under the tarp

But not immediately.

The big storm that sinks the boat and almost everyone and everything in it, washes up, onto Pi’s lifeboat, which is half-covered with a tarp, not a tiger but an injured zebra, a seasick orangutan named Orange Juice, and a hyena who keeps trying to finish off the zebra. Pi tries to maintain control of the situation but he’s a boy without a weapon. It’s Orange Juice who finally does it, by bonking the hyena on the head. For a second we’re relieved. We laugh. Then the hyena attacks Orange Juice. Pi screams. And from under the tarp, Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger, finally emerges and swiftly kills the hyena.

And just like that it’s the two of them: Richard Parker, patrolling the lifeboat, and Pi hanging onto a makeshift float of oars and lifejackets tied to the lifeboat. In this manner they drift and get hungry. At one point, the tiger, hungry, jumps into the ocean to get at the fish but then swims toward Pi, who, panicking, pulls himself up on the lifeboat. He’s about to kill the tiger, clinging to the side, but can’t, for he sees the soul in his eyes. Instead he creates a kind of ladder that the tiger ascends to safety.

The story becomes increasingly hallucinatory. The ocean turns luminescent just as a giant whale leaps into the air and thunders back again. They are suddenly inundated, pelted, with flying fish, who fill the boat with themselves. Half-starved, they bump into a floating island, teeming with meerkats and vegetation, which, Pi determines, is a living thing, and carnivorous, and would eventually eat them. So off they go again. Finally, after 227 days, they land on the shores of Mexico. Pi drags the boat onto the beach and collapses. Richard Parker leaps onto the beach and heads for the jungle, which is conveniently nearby. He pauses right before he enters it again. Pi, barely able to lift up his head, is hoping for a final look of farewell from this companion, this tiger whom he tamed and loved, but it doesn’t come. Instead Richard Parker simply vanishes into the woods.

That’s basically the story. Except no one believes it. Hyenas and tigers and zebras, oh my? A floating carnivorous island? A boy and a Bengal tiger? Is this Calvin and Hobbes?

No. But it may be “Fight Club.”

The tiger inside Pi

In Mexico, the Japanese steamer company sends two representatives to find out how their boat, with all its precious cargo, sunk. Other than “Storm,” Pi can’t really tell them why. He can only tell them the other things, about Richard Parker and the carnivorous island, which are not only fantastic but completely irrelevant to what they want to know. So he tells them another story. In this one, the animals are played by humans. The orangutan is Pi’s mother, the zebra is a sailor with a broken leg, and the hyena is the asshole cook we met on board (Gérard Depardieu). It’s a lie for those too grounded to believe the fantastic.

But then the Writer makes the connection between Pi and the tiger—that Pi was the tiger—and, as the Writer realizes it, so do we: This is the true story. Pi is the tiger who kills the hyena (the cook) who kills the orangutan (Pi’s mother). Transposing the story with animals is Pi’s way of dealing with the tragedy. In this manner, the tiger is both Pi’s Hobbes (his companion) and his Tyler Durden (himself). It’s also why it took so long for the tiger to show up on the lifeboat. He wasn’t emerging from under the tarp; he was emerging from within Pi.

Neither version, by itself, is satisfying. Each has holes. If it’s the version with the tiger, how does Richard Parker, a tiger, hide under a tarp, and why would a hyena hide there with him? And if it’s the version without the tiger, then it’s a version without the tiger. That’s no fun. Instead of a story about a boy and a tiger on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, it’s a story about a boy on a lifeboat who slowly goes crazy with grief and isolation. But the two versions, each unsatisfying, each full of holes, complement each other.

As for the early promise about believing in God? At the end of this long tale, the mature Pi asks the Writer which story he prefers and he admits the one with the tiger. To which Pi responds: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”

The Writer smiles at this but in the audience I was simply confused. Wait a minute, what did he say? Goes with God? What does that mean? And prefer? Preference isn’t belief. How does this make us believe in God? Is Pi, a man who collects religions the way I collected baseball cards, saying that humans prefer the story of God the way that we prefer the story of the tiger? Because it’s a nicer story? And because it keeps the other story, the story about the horror humans do, at bay?

This isn’t a story that makes us believe in God, in other words. This is a story about why we believe in God. Or why our belief in God is generally a lie.

The tiger or Gérard Depardieu?

A friend of mine refuses to see this movie. He saw the trailer and thought it looked like pap. A boy and a tiger on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean? Puh-lease. My friend didn’t know he was already in the movie. He was a representative of the Japanese steamer company, there to file a report. And, in that report, even they prefer the story about the tiger. Who doesn’t? It’s got a tiger in it.

“Life of Pi” is interesting in this way. It appears to be a tough-but-gentle wish-fulfillment fantasy about a boy and a tiger on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. But the further I move away from it, the darker, and less gentle, it seems; and the more I see, not the tiger, growling majestically, but Gérard Depardieu, the hyena, lording it over the injured people in the small lifeboat. Until he’s brought low.

—December 14, 2012

© 2012 Erik Lundegaard