The Life of Pi—- Gets a 3.14 rating

Films involving India and Indians have been all the rage of late, since at least Slum Dog Millionaire. In the Life of Pi, we have another such film, which has a profoundly religious subtext and subtexture. Pi Patel (short for Piscine— a boy named after a French swimming pool) is a boy who grows up in a zoo and botanical garden in India. Pi is bright, and deeply religious…. and he samples different religions like a football player at a steak buffet table. He likes them all, even says Krishna introduced him to Christ, and calls himself a Hindu Catholic. Polytheists of course have no problem adding another deity to their collection, and Pi goes so far as to say that the Hindu gods were like super-heroes to him.

This movie however is more about the interconnectivity of all life, and more specifically it is a story about a boy and his Bengal tiger (who is named Richard Parker)… stuck on a small row boat in the Pacific for weeks and weeks. Pi, not surprisingly, keeps probing the meaning of all the suffering that he sees some god as putting him through. And make no mistake there is suffering— Pi loses his whole family in a horrible storm at sea which sinks the freighter he, his family, and a Noah’s ark worth of animals are on. The Patels are trying to movie to Canada, in order to start a new life. The only survivorss are Pi and Richard Parker.

There are some things to commend about this movie. First there is the spectacular cinematography which in and of itself is well worth the price of admission. There are scenes and segments of stunning beauty. Secondly, the story of survival at sea against all odds is indeed a story worth telling of human courage, and Pi Patel insists the only reason he does survive is due to the challenge of living with his fierce friend Richard Parker. But this is not a Narnia tale about Aslan, this is a very different sort of king of the beasts story. The story of course is based on the best selling novel of the same name.

There are however problems with the story. Firstly the lost at sea part of the story takes up most of the film, and takes too long to tell. The movie is 2 hours and seven minutes and for close to an hour and a half of it we are out to sea and wondering where this is all going. The second and more profound problem with the film is the all too familiar attempt to blend all religions together in the mental cuisinart, ignoring the importance, indeed the vitality of the differences. The religious element in the film ends up more like chicken soup for the soul rather than profound discussions about the meaning of life and of God’s role in it.

Thirdly, there is the problem of the notion, not unusual in eastern religions of the sacredness of all life, taken to the degree that some of the main characters in the film are vegetarians. The problem of course with this is that if you believe in the sacredness of all life, then why not plants as well— why not fruits and vegetables as well? This whole animistic form of religion of course denies that humans are uniquely created in the image of God, and that other creatures were in part created for our use, including for food. Life is all valuable, but it is not all sacred. There is, for example, nothing sacred about flesh eating bacteria.

I found the story telling in this film at points excellent, and full of pathos, but I also found it’s presentation of the divine-human encounter, confused and confusing at best. While Pi at the end is right to say that it is right to believe in God, because that makes a better story out of life, he does not pause to tell us why that is so. We are tantalized but not helped, in the end, by the spiritual dimensions in this film. Still, it is well worth seeing, especially visually, and I give it a rating of 3.14…….. which is to say, I give it a rating of pi.

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  • Shelah

    I’ll stick to the book. It was confusing enough. BTW the sea voyage took up most of the book too!

  • Dan Miller

    Thanks for the review. I saw the movie the other day, and had many of the same thoughts. I expected it to be more of a Forrest Gump or Big Fish type adventure with a ton of different events that make up the life of the protagonist. But as you mentioned, it was mostly about a boy on a boat with a tiger. I thought that would be part of the journey – not the vast majority of it. It wasn’t a bad movie, but not one I’d really care to see again, either.

  • Tom1st

    Dr. Witherington,
    Have you read the book?

    I haven’t seen the movie yet. But the book didn’t so much ‘blend’ religions together, but it did sort of criticize anyone who might make claims of exclusiveness.

    In the end, the book was a good critique of modernity and wonderfully expressed the human longing for a better story than what modernity offers. But it was anything but distinctively Christian, to be sure.

  • Chris

    I’m a bit disappointed with the movie, for some of the same reasons you mentioned. The emphasis on melding faiths was distressing, though perhaps I should be accustomed to it by now; it’s been increasingly popular at least since The Matrix. Still, I hope for better storytelling and less religious confusion.

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Tom:

    My wife read the novel, and decided not to see the movie. I did the reverse but talked with her about it. For her the real deal breaker is the meercat island and the man eating algae. First of all there are no meercats in that part of the world, and secondly there is no such thing as man eating algae or the like. Venus fly traps don’t eat humans either. Which raises the question— which story that he told was close to being real? BW3

  • mgvh

    I read the book some years ago and saw the movie in its 3-D version. (I think it’s one of the better 3-D movies. If you saw it in 2-D, you can probably imagine how all those CGI effects would look great in 3-D.)
    Without spoiling the book or the movie, I’ll just say that the part that most interested me was the juxtaposition of the two stories. When asked what really happened, the response was “Which do you prefer?” I do not hear this as a “if you think it’s true, then it’s true for you.” Rather, I hear it as a both-are-true in their own way. For me, this is like reading the Gospels of Mark and John and asking what really happened. Well, which do you prefer?

  • Marcia L. Matthews

    Mr. Witherington’s comment that
    “humans are uniquely created in the image of God, and that other creatures were in part created for our use, including for food. Life is all valuable, but it is not all sacred. There is, for example, nothing sacred about flesh eating bacteria.” This is Mr. Witherington’s beliefs, based on the mythology of one of two creation stories in the Hebrew-Christian tradition. It is no more provable or logical than Pi’s view. Furthermore, it is a view that is causing the West to destroy creation in “our use.”
    Flesh-eating bacteria bring about death. It is the ego that fears death, not faith.

  • Tom1st

    Per your observations about the meercats and algae and questions about which story is real, I’m not sure how the movie handles it (because I haven’t seen it yet), but THAT is exactly the point in the book – The investigators looking into the sinking of the ship are asking him those exact questions and Pi’s response is that no matter how he tells the story, the ship still sunk. BUT he goes on to tell them that their problem is that they can only ‘believe’ in a certain kind of reality and that reality precludes Pi’s story being ‘believable’ because of those hard to believe details.

    Pi responds, “If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”

    In other words, I’m sure Yann Martell is fully aware that meercats do not live in that part of the world. And I’m more than sure he knows there’s no such thing as man-eating algae; these pieces of the narrative make the story less believable on purpose, I think. For Pi, it’s not about what story is ‘real’ according to some modern definition of real; it’s about being willing to believe things outside of one’s experience or cultural lens.

    Sure, there are weaknesses to this. And the message, itself, has flaws. But at the end of the day, I think Pi’s story is a challenge to the square story of modernity that can’t believe anything other than what it touches, tastes, smells, hears, or can gauge in some other scientific fashion.