Life of Pi

Visually breathtaking adaptation of the Yann Martel novel

Also opening this week:

• Pitch Perfect ★★

Life of PI

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Directed by Ang Lee. Starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Gérard Depardieu, Rafe Spall. Written by David Magee, based on the book by Yann Martel.

Note: in Prague, Life of Pi is screening in both dubbed and subtitled versions in most cinemas; check listings before heading out. The 3D version of the film is dubbed at most cinemas, but can be seen in English at Cinema City Slovanský dům; below review refers to the 3D version.

Visually majestic, beautifully composed, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a spellbinding journey that captures your attention and requests careful consideration as it unfolds on the screen. Based on the popular 2001 novel by Yann Martel, the film attempts to illustrate no less than the nature of man’s relationship with God, and would be a spectacular success if it realized it’s ambitions. It doesn’t (and neither did the novel), but there’s enough good here on a pure filmmaking level to make this well worth watching. 

Like the novel, Life of Pi is separated into three sections: the first details the early life of Piscine Molitor Patel, the second follows his incredible 227-day journey adrift at sea with an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, and the third – new to the film – is a bookend (and intercut) sequence with an older Pi (Irrfan Khan) telling his story to an unnamed writer (Rafe Spall).

Pi’s backstory – filled with wonderful little asides like how he got his name, how he was able to change it, and how a paperwork error gave the tiger in his father’s zoo a human name – is truly charming, and easily could have encapsulated an entire film. Tabu and Adil Hussain offer solid support as Pi’s mother and father; the scene where the father demonstrates the animal nature of Richard Parker is especially memorable.

The survival at sea segment – which makes up the bulk of the film – is terrifying, magical, uplifting, and enthralling. It’s a spiritual journey, and we’re always aware of that, but the detailed breakdown of how Pi manages to stay alive ranks up there with Cast Away and other incredible tales of survival. During these scenes, the teenage Pi is played by Suraj Sharma, in his first film role; you’d never know that, given the confidence that he displays here, carrying the film by himself.

And then there’s the bookend, which, thematically, wraps everything up in a neat little unambiguous bow and just about undermines the rest of the movie. I think having read the novel prepared me for the ending here, but I still find it profoundly irritating. I can’t get into it without spoiling things, but for the sake of one good line of thought – and it is, admittedly, a good idea – the author sacrifices all the greatness that led up to it. 

Now, this is no fault of the movie – it’s inherent in the source, and no realization would have been able to alter it. As an adaptation of the novel, Lee’s film might as well be flawless. Visually, certainly, it’s unparalleled.

Life of Pi uses a great deal of CGI, but it’s used so well that we cannot tell what is real and what isn’t in regards to the central creation of Richard Parker (most of the tiger scenes, apparently, have been created using CGI effects). Other animal sequences, like the schools of flying fish, or waves of glowing jellyfish, or a giant whale that nearly capsizes the liferaft, are similarly effective. 

Gorgeous cinematography by Claudio Miranda begins with familiar pastels in the India-set scenes before moving on to some eerie, neon-lit sequences during the capsizing and survival at sea sequences; Miranda also shot TRON: Legacy, which gave off a similar vibe. 

Life of Pi uses 3D as well as just about any film that has come before it, and is one of the few high-profile films that genuinely benefits from the technology. Simple nature shots – such as those in the opening credit sequence – make inspired use of 3D, but during the survival story there’s a depth and dimension and eerie otherworldness to the ocean that makes seeing the film in 3D a unique experience; underwater scenes are especially vivid.

While Life of Pi isn’t a perfect film, it’s about as perfect an adaptation as could be reasonably expected. Many will love this movie, as many have loved the novel that has come before it; the rest of us may simply like it. 

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