By Steven Moore
Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, without question, should win the award for Best Picture at the 2013 Oscars. It probably won’t, but it should. Life of Pi is an adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel of the same name. Whether Martel intended to write a modern Jainist manifesto or not, he did. The Jainist philosophy is one of pluralism, in which there is one single truth, but all beliefs are an aspect of that truth. If one person says a lemon is sweet and another says a lemon is sour, both are true, and both are aspects of lemons. Similarly, Pi, the protagonist, cannot limit himself to a single religion or ideology. He embraces Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Scientific Skepticism equally, claiming, “Faith has many rooms, and all of them have doubt.” Like his namesake, he does not allow himself to be constrained by tradition, but continues on, always ready for something new.
The movie begins exploring its central question through the framework of a writer interviewing the adult Pi, who relates a story through flashback, telling of his youth when he tried to feed a tiger, Richard Parker, only to be admonished by his father, who warns him of the danger: “You only see yourself reflected in his eyes.” While Pi is certain that all living things contain a soul and some notion of compassion, faced with the tiger’s brutality toward a living goat, he must also face the ugliness of the survival instinct. His father’s statement becomes the overall question of the movie. Like Richard Parker, is Pi’s survival instinct as animalistic and barbarous? When stripped of society and faced with just survival, is he nothing more than an animal?
Although we don’t realize it until the end, Pi tells his story using symbolism and parables, fitting since much of the movie revolves around religion. One of the most blatantly symbolic moments of the film for which there is no explicit “factual” counterpart is a floating carnivorous island. The island parallels the island of the lotus eaters and serves a similar purpose. This carnivorous island, which resembles a sleeping Vishnu in a wide shot, offers a safe harbor when Pi most needs it. Like the island of the lotus eaters, the danger of the island is apathy. The island has everything he needs to survive, but Pi must decide if survival is more important than anything else. It’s no coincidence that immediately after leaving the island, the next scene shows Pi arriving back in civilization and the departure of Richard Parker.
When Pi relates his story, and it is rejected by a couple of Japanese businessmen as too fantastical, he tells the “real” story. This is when you realize everything you’ve seen has been symbolic, that Richard Parker’s departure was the departure of Pi’s survival instinct; however, the Japanese businessmen “didn’t like my second story, and left without saying anything else.” The movie begins by promising to make Pi’s interviewer believe in God. When he reads the report the Japanese businessman wrote down, it is the more fantastical version of the the story. Pi gives two stories in which the boat sinks, his family dies, and he survives, then asks,”Which do you prefer?” One is the ugly reality of human suffering, and the other gives that suffering meaning. The Japanese businessman, the writer, and the audience prefer the first story.
Through its pluralism, Life of Pi makes a case for a single, shared human experience, simultaneously barbaric, tragic, beautiful, and full of meaning.
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