After a spectacular disaster, a young man (Suraj Sharma) on a fateful voyage is hurtled into an epic journey of adventure and discovery. He becomes marooned on a lifeboat he must share with the ship’s only other survivor, a fearsome Bengal tiger with whom he makes an amazing and unexpected connection.
Life of Pi allegedly makes two promises: The Spiritual Experience, namely, the much spoken of 'this story will make you believe in God"; and The Cinematic Experience that some suppose will have you believe in two other gods – the Gog and Magog of the movies – CGI and 3D.
Possibly Lee is asking audiences not to believe in the special effects.
The middle of this story is depicted on the front cover of the paperback (replicated in the film in what could be interpreted as a God’s P.O.V. shot) and on the movie poster showing actor Suraj Sharma on a raft with a tiger close by. More exactly, it’s the story of Indian youth, Pi, who en route to Canada, is accidentally cast adrift in the Pacific with a tiger from his family’s zoo for deadly company. Like the book, the story is told in flashback by the survivor (grown up to be Irrfan Khan) to a failed novelist (Rafe Spall) who has travelled to Montreal to hear a tale that will make him believe in God.
Posters and book covers highlight one story, but the film (and the book) is actually two stories. One occupies 99 percent of the narrative. The other is quickly offered as a loathsome alternative with a virtually unspoken punchline. Taiwanese American (naturalised US citizen) director Ang Lee, working from David Magee’s script, gives the punchline a fleeting, but heavy emphasis in one exchange of dialogue (also present in the book though uttered by different characters). To discuss it much further means straying close to spoiler territory, but suffice it to say it’s not a dream, nor a fraud, though if you think of the conflicting points of view in Zhang Yimou’s Hero and Kurosawa Akira’s Rashomon (both - coincidentally? – Asian films), you may more easily see why Pi’s story would lead the Canadian writer – or anyone - to believe in God.
Overseas reviews have focussed on the vivid reality of the admittedly startling Bengal tiger. But few critics seemed to give the unreality of the near translucent leaping whale (visible in the trailer) a second thought. The storm is a spectacular nightmare, but for most of the film, the ocean is a beautiful surrealist mirror – and sometimes a window – to the sky above, like the swimming pool after which the lead character is named (Piscine is French for swimming pool. Pi is the abbreviated name he prefers).
Some may find the smoothness of CGI and the 3D effects too unreal, far too beautiful to be acceptable as actuality, but that seems part of Lee’s aim. This hyper-realism that causes audiences to flinch at tigers the way that the Lumiere’s audiences once ran from arriving trains, is not reality – awe-inspiring and breathtaking though it is (in a distant echo of Kim Ki-duk’s The Isle the shape of an island Pi visits, reinforces this).
The remark 'And so it goes with God" applies equally to the effects of 3D and the CGI too. Possibly Lee is asking audiences not to believe in the special effects. Equally unflinching, Lee may not find this story quite as uplifting as others would have you believe it to be. Maybe we believe in God, because the alternative is too unbearable.