Life of Pi’s Aesthetic as Theology

Life of Pi’s Aesthetic as Theology November 21, 2012

Review of Life of Pi, Directed by Ang Lee


Life of Pi asks big questions but leaves audiences with few answers. This latest Ang Lee movie is an adaptation of the eponymous novel by Yann Martel, which already had a large readership before Lee announced the upcoming film release. Life of Pi tells the story of Piscine Molitor Patel who grows up in India, where his father owns a zoo. He changes his name to “Pi” to avoid jokes about his name’s homophonic similarities to the slang word for urination. The story could be divided into three acts: 1) his years growing up in India, 2) the shipwreck and his life as a castaway, 3) his reflections on his experiences.

The film begins with Pi speaking with a freelance writer. Pi’s uncle told this writer that Pi had quite a story to tell and so the writer came to investigate. The film is Pi’s narrative.

Though growing up a Hindu, Pi explores Christianity and Islam and finds admirable things in all there. In one scene he is engaged in praying to Allah on a prayer mat; the next shows him crossing himself before he eats. This sequence of shots, with the adult Pi narrating his exploration of religion, confronts the audience immediately with an “all paths lead to God” form of spirituality that is reflective of the contemporary milieu and the philosophy of John Hick. At this point, Lee has given the film profound religious dimensions.

Pi’s father decides to move the family and bring the zoo animals along to sell in North America. On their way, a storm hits the cargo ship and Pi ends up being the sole survivor after being lowered in a lifeboat. The lifeboat also holds a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded Zebra, and a Bengal tiger named “Richard Parker.” The hyena ends up eating the zebra alive, followed by killing the orangutan, only to be eaten by Richard Parker. Pi ends up fishing to feed the tiger so that he won’t decide to eat Pi. They end up coming to an island, which they then leave after discovering that its ecosystem was carnivorous. The lifeboat ends up being washed ashore on the Mexican coast.

After they reach land, Richard Parker journeys into the jungle and leaves no trace behind. Representatives of the cargo ship owners visit Pi in the hospital to learn why the ship sank, but instead get Pi’s extraordinary story of survival. They refuse to believe it, so Pi tells a metaphorical story whereby the Zebra is a wounded sailor, the orangutan is his mother, the hyena is the ship’s callous cook, and Richard Parker is Pi himself.

Pi asks the writer which version of the saga he prefers. The animal version, he replies. Pi gives him the report filed by the ship company representatives, which reads that Pi held the record for shipwreck survivor longest at sea, and simply notes that he was accompanied by a Bengal tiger. We are left to interpret that comment ourselves. Does this last note demonstrate that there was evidence of a Bengal tiger on the ship and hence lends credence to Pi’s story? Or does it merely indicate that the company representatives preferred the fantastical version?

Somehow the audience is expected to come full circle—the beginning of the film asks questions about God’s existence and the human spiritual experience and the movie ends with Pi uttering cryptic lines that are supposed to have answered these questions. I left the theater rather unsatisfied, not because there were no answers, but because Lee failed to even provide the connection between the three parts of the film. We moved from big questions in the first part to an end that jumped to a vague interpretation of the castaway experience.

The clear import of the closing scene is that we can choose to view reality as mundane and material, or we can see it in all its manifold beauty that whispers the existence of God as corroborated by mindboggling providence. There is something inherent in us that wants to believe the latter and, lucky for us, the latter is true. If anything, Life of Pi is an argument for the existence of God based on the experience of beauty—whether it is physical beauty (the trailer shows jaw-dropping scenes of splendor that do not disappoint) or the beauty of storytelling.

Life of Pi oddly lacks a theodicy. It doesn’t address the pain of why Pi’s parents had to die and why there’s a Darwinian food chain in the lifeboat. The story might be trying to go one-step more and relegate these painful episodes to being part of the conflict—a necessary component to any good story. And that’s what we’re wrapped up in: the story of the universal soul. This is intellectually rooted in Hindu-Buddhistic views of cyclical history that can celebrate such a story of suffering without demanding justice from a higher power.

To sum it up, the appetizer in the beginning and the dessert at the end tasted good, but the main course seemed completely unrelated to either. The whole time spent eating the main course was similar to an idyllic and eye-popping version of Tom Hanks’s Castaway that singularly focused on survival. I have not read the book, so I’m not sure if Martel does a better job with this, but Lee’s adaptation left something to be desired.

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