Spoiler alert: Pretty much everything important about the film is given away in this review. If you have any plans to watch the film without knowing the ending, I highly suggest you save this for later; the film largely depends on ignorance about the outcome for its effectiveness.
Perhaps you have heard about the new Ang Lee film Life of Pi. You may have seen advertisements for it, which communicated pretty successfully two things: one, this film is epic and two, it involves a guy being stuck in a boat with a tiger.
Turns out the preview did not mislead you – Life of Pi is a bona fide epic, and it does involve a boy stuck on a boat with a tiger. But from a strange ad on my facebook feed and an emotional post on an academic blog, I went into the film also knowing it had a much grander theme than merely spectacular visuals – I knew it had something to do with God, faith, and the meaning of it all.
Thus, I went into Life of Pi very curious but a little precautious. And at first, my precaution seemed at least slightly justified – early in the film, we are treated to several obnoxious and common mainstream (and typically liberal) truisms about faith – that God communicates himself through all the major religions, and that you cannot have faith without doubt, for lest how do you know you really believe? These are delivered by the adult Pi, living in contemporary Canada, who is visited by a struggling writer who tells him that a shared acquaintance told him that Pi had a story which would make him believe in God – and the film is structured by Pi’s recounting of this tale. This sets up the film to appear, at first, as another vehicle for delivering Hallmark-safe religion; all love, all acceptance, all inner-peace and in the end God or the force of love in the universe or whatever makes everything OK. But then things get a little more complicated.
First, things go very, very badly for Pi. On a boat trip with his family in a move to Canada he did not want to make, a huge storm sinks the large barge they are on and everyone dies – everyone except for Pi and some crated zoo animals that somehow escaped their cages and float or swim their way to Pi and his small lifeboat. Pi takes them on board not only because he loves animals, but because he loves these animals – they are the inhabitants of his family’s zoo which he grew up on. He is joined at first by a zebra, an orangutan, and a little less happily, a frustrated hyena.
Yet Pi is not allowed even this meager comfort for long; the brutish hyena that has made it on board first rips open the legs of the zebra, and then after the orangutan bravely tries to intervene in this torture, is attacked herself and violently killed by the hyena. As Pi lashes out in anger at the hyena, we suddenly discover that the family’s Bengal Tiger – humorously named Richard Parker – has also made it on the boat. You can deduce what happens to the hyena.
Thus begins Pi’s journey with the sea and Richard Parker. At first Richard Parker makes it very clear that Pi is not welcome on the boat, so Pi creates a floatation platform connected to the boat so that he and Richard Parker can float alongside each other but apart, as it were. However after a while this becomes untenable, and Pi decides that he and Richard Parker need to work something out. And they do, not the least because Richard Parker figures out that eating Pi would in the long run lead to less, not more food.
Before this accord is reached, however, Pi has an opportunity to let Richard Parker drown, and take the lifeboat for himself. In one of the more moving scenes in the film, he stares into the eyes of the desperate tiger and, despite the danger to himself in saving him, decides he cannot let him drown. As a simple testament to the idea that what makes us human does, and for the sake of a sane world absolutely must, apply to other creatures than ourselves, it is a beautiful scene. But of course, I’m a sucker for this sort of sentiment.
For the sake of brevity I will skip to the end of the film, only to pause to note that before Pi finally lands on the shores of Mexico, the story takes a turn which, unlike everything that preceded it, is not only implausible but downright unbelievable. At this point the audience is tipped off that something else is going on here – is this story really about a boy and a tiger stuck on a lifeboat, or is there some other plot element that has not yet been introduced?
At first, when Pi is interviewed in a Mexican hospital by the Japanese owners of the sunken barge, he insists on the first story – everyone died on the life boat, some animals made it on board with him but only he and the tiger survived. But when they press him – that’s simply not believable and thus unacceptable, they say – he comes out with another story. Through tears and anguish, he tells them that he, his mother, and two other sailors from the ship survived and made it into the lifeboat. One of the sailors, a brutish cook who had had an earlier run-in with his mother, cruelly imposed suffering on the other injured sailor in calculating that it would be better for them if he died slower rather than faster. When Pi’s mother tried to bring an end to this, the cook killed his mother – and then, filled with rage, Pi killed the cook. We are then helped by the realization of the writer interviewing Pi to see the connection between this narrative and what happened with the animals earlier in the film – the zebra was the suffering sailor, the hyena the cook, the orangutan his mother and Pi himself the tiger.
After this is revealed, we return to the present and the interview between the adult Pi and the struggling author. He asks Pi which story is true – and Pi simply responds with the question, which story do you want to be true? After hesitating, the author responds, “the tiger – the story with the tiger is the better story.” Pi, who is deep in the emotions of recounting his story, smiles and says, “So it goes with God.”
Thus this question – which story do you want to be true? – is the question which the movie asks all its viewers, but it does not necessarily compel us to answer it wholly or definitely one way or another. A lesser film might have done this – might have ended with some final scene that suggested that the story with Richard Parker was true after all, or was at least partially true, or something to that extent; or, it would have never presented us with the conundrum in the first place, but rather made a film about spectacular faith justified by a spectacular story. But instead, Life of Pi makes the possibility – in my mind, not surprisingly, the evidently clear answer – that the story with the tiger never happened at all very available, and it doesn’t do anything to really soften the blow viewers may feel when they realize that perhaps the entire narrative was a way Pi helped himself cope with the extreme psychological and physical trauma of losing his entire family and then surviving for weeks on a lifeboat in the middle of the pacific ocean.
Therefore the film does give the individual viewer a lot of leeway in how they want to interpret these parallel narratives – because even if you think it obviously shuts the door to the entire tiger and boy in a boat narrative being true, this does not end the way in which we can interpret that aspect of the story. If this did not happen, how did Pi stumble on this story? Did he make it up as he went along?, or was it a massive hallucination, a kind of temporary insanity his traumatized mind came up with in the process of surviving on the ocean? Did he construct aspects of this narrative after the event, to help him cope with the real memory and adjust it accordingly to what he believed he learned out there on the ocean? If he knows the story is not true, why does he tell it to friends and relatives at least starting with the premise that it is 100 percent true? So that they may better learn what he learned through a story which captured its emotional and spiritual dimensions?
As is probably highly evident by now, pondering over these questions is a way of asking dozens of questions about not only faith and religion, but human culture and psychology. Many will say, and rightly so as far as it goes, that in a sense the story about Pi and the tiger is still true – psychologically true, as it were – and isn’t this exactly the same function religion serves? But then again, others might point out, the story is also a way for Pi to shield himself from the truth, rather than cope with it or confront it directly – isn’t this also what religion, much less laudably, does for us? I’m not going to get into these questions now, because I bring them up of course only to point to the virtue of the film for asking them – and because the film doesn’t close off more atheistic responses to these questions, I did not feel alienated or preached to by it at all. Rather, I felt like it was open to what my response to Pi’s primary question – which story is the better story? – might be.
My answer is that the better story is the true story – the story about the cook and his mother is the one I prefer. Not because I like that story more – obviously, a story of a boy and a tiger stuck on a boat together and learning somehow to live with one another long enough to survive is in certain ways more appealing; I would love the scene where the dying boy holds the dying tiger’s head in his lap and cries and apologizes to him (which is the scene in which I lost it the most and let the tears stream down my own face; again, I’m a sucker for animal-human love), for example, to be true. But as moving as that story is, it doesn’t seem nearly so near to me, or so human, and thus real and accessible and ultimately meaningful, as the story about Pi losing his innocence at the hands of the man who murdered his mother. This is the story I would want to know, because I always want the story which gets me closest to what other human beings are experiencing. The story about Richard Parker does some of this, for sure; but really it is a reflection of the larger and more relentless reality he is dealing with, so as a story it tells us not so much what happened, but how Pi coped with what happened and the meaning he decided to take out of it. A very important story, for sure, but ultimately given birth by that which Pi really knew, and really experienced – ultimately based, in this sense, on the truth.
My interpretation and the interpretations of other atheists, moreover, is given some representation in a certain sense by the character of Pi’s father, who is an atheist and a lover of science. Early in the film, Pi’s father tells him that he cannot embrace every religion, as the young Pi was in the habit of doing – for if he believes in everything, that means he really believes in nothing. Towards the end of the film, as Pi tells the visiting author what causes him the most pain, he says he wished he had a chance to thank his father – to tell him that he would have never survived without all he taught him. In this small way, the film makes clear – or at least it did to me – that hostility to unbelievers was not the goal of the film. Rather, it’s a meditation not only on faith, but loss, hope, suffering and to what extent we are (or are not) connected to the rest of nature and our fellow sentient beings.
I’m guessing some other atheists may feel differently about the film – may think it was more heavy handed in its argument for the value of faith. But I think that’s probably being too defensive – true, believers are probably going to enjoy this film more than non-believers, particularly believers of liberal, New Agey faiths which systematically avoid asking the hard questions. But if the film (and the novel on which it is based) really intended to be a slam dunk for faith, it would have never opened up this option of letting us take what we will from this story of a boy and a tiger. After all, Pi asks the author which story he prefers – not which one seemed more likely or, even which one he believed, but which he preferred, and then answered, “so it goes with God” – thus suggesting that faith in God ultimately represents a choice we make, not a matter of objective reality waiting to be acknowledged. I think that’s a pretty brave choice for a story which seems completely built, at first, on celebrating faith – and it makes Life of Pi an accessible, moving experience for most anyone who grapples with the human condition.