Watching “Life of Pi,” new on DVD this week, for a piece you’ll find in WAG’s April “Animal Magnetism” issue reminded me of reading Thor Heyerdahl’s “Kon-Tiki” aloud with my fellow eighth graders in convent school. It’s about a bunch of guys on a raft crossing the Pacific, and after reading the book, I felt I was right there with them – and not in a good way. “Pi” is a far more entertaining sea yarn, a triumph of the visual, but that is its weakness as well as its strength.
If you love Ang Lee’s work – and who doesn’t love “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “Brokeback Mountain” – then you know his movies are often about the tussle between head and heart, with the heart suffering greatly. The titular Pi – an Indian youth torn between the rationality of his father, a zookeeper, and his mother’s romanticism – must balance the intellectual and the visceral as the sole human survivor of a shipwreck in which he’s forced to share a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
The movie is a visual stunner, justly deserving of its Oscars for visual effects and cinematography. Ditto Mychael Danna’s haunting score. But interestingly enough, Lee never achieves the balance between the verbal and the visual that Pi – beautifully realized by Suraj Sharma in a gutsy performance – manages in his quest for survival. The visual overwhelms the verbal here, yet we still live in a verbal world in which stories are told primarily through words. The limitations of “Pi’s” story are the limitations of the eponymous Yann Martel novel, which uses the framing device of an older Pi narrating the tale. This both robs the story of its suspense – obviously, he survived to tell his story – and renders its effect in pedestrian terms since the older Pi is not charismatic like his younger self.
Then, too, “Pi” heaps on the symbolism. Oh, so the tiger represents Pi’s fierce desire to survive. Yeah, we get it. We, too, saw “Rocky III.”
Finally, how come in survivor movies (see “Cast Away”) the people always know how to make rafts, find water and food and still look gorgeous? Me, I’d have been shark meat on day one. But then, I wouldn’t have saved the tiger, either.
– Georgette Gouveia