Megan and I finally got around to watching Life of Pi. It’s a beautifully filmed and extravagant spectacle, but it didn’t work for us. When I first expressed my disappointment, I received several negative reactions. It’s a movie that seems either to resonate deeply or not at all. Here’s where it failed for me.
Pi’s survival adrift on the Pacific makes for gripping drama, all the more because he shares his lifeboat with an untamed Bengal tiger and also briefly with a wounded zebra, hyena, and orangutan. But the issue for me is how this drama is supposed to prove the reality of God.
That’s the promise, after all. A writer comes to Pi years after the shipwreck. He wants to hear the story because someone has told him that it “will make you believe in God.” And so Pi spins the yarn.
The principal elements prove metaphoric. There are some obvious clues that this is the case. The first is that the tiger — which earlier the father tells the son only reflects his own feelings — stays unseen in the boat until the moment it explodes upon the hyena and kills it. Second, the tiger flees unceremoniously the moment Pi reaches safety. The animal is in fact Pi’s fear, rage, and will to survive.
The metaphor works, particularly when we we realize that it’s also a mask. The tiger explodes upon the hyena because it has killed the zebra and orangutan. But all of the animals represent people, not just the tiger, and the reality is that a “resourceful” survivor has murdered a fellow shipmate to use as bait and food and has killed Pi’s mother as well. Pi dispatches the killer and then suppresses this version of events, presumably because of its horror. It’s too much to own.
I tracked right up to this point, and even had a good deal of sympathy for Pi. The disappointment was not in his use of the metaphor, but his response to the idea that ultimately you can choose between the metaphor and reality — that they are somehow equivalent and so it makes no difference which version you prefer.
After telling him both versions, Pi asks the writer which he favors, the one in which Pi knifes the bad man or the one in which he braves the sea with a big cat. Unsurprisingly, the man chooses the latter. “Thank you,” says Pi. “And so it goes with God.”
There are a few ways to look at that answer. Life of Pi novelist Yann Martel gives us his:
Pi makes a parallel between the two stories and religion. His argument (and mine) is that a vision of life that has a transcendental element is better than one that is purely secular and materialist. A story with God (“God” defined in the broadest sense) is the better story, I argue, just as I think the story with animals is the better story.
No doubt. But if your preferred story is just a self-made construct, then it’s not truly transcendent. It’s a brightly painted ceiling in the rather cramped closet of your own mind and experience.
Earlier in the movie, before the shipwreck, Pi begins a multifaith quest to discover the divine. Though his father is unbelieving, Pi is a pious Hindu, who later adopts Catholicism and Islam. He loves and practices all three faiths, despite their mutual contradictions. Though his rationalist father is upset with him for not choosing between them, the reality is that Pi has chosen.
Like the version of events at sea, Pi constructs his own version of God. It’s a fantastical and nonsensical version, but it’s his. The problem is that it no more honors the Jesus Pi claims to love than his fantasy honors the memory of his mother who was murdered and thrown to sharks.