With a skyward glance, Ang Lee thanked the “movie god” for his Best Director win at the Oscars Sunday night. While many were expecting Steven Spielberg to take the prize, it didn’t seem like anyone was too unhappy about Lee’s victory. I really wanted Lee to win. However unfairly, I’ve been rooting for Lee to win any award he’s been nominated for since I watched his 2007 espionage thriller Lust, Caution. Lee’s adaptation of Eileen Chang’s short story is still one of my two favorite films (the other being Casablanca) because he perfects the look of love and other such ephemeral emotions. As various critics have said, Lee’s gift lies in depicting the nuances of relationships, and I think that’s apparent in Life of Pi.
In Life of Pi, a boy emigrating to Canada with his family becomes orphaned and ends up adrift at sea with four animal companions after the ship he is on sinks. For some reason (and this shows the extent to which I’ve forgotten the novel), I wondered if the animals would talk in the film version, but it was just as well they didn’t; the sadness in the eyes of a normal dying orangutan already says too much. Whenever there was a close-up of an animal’s face, I’d wrestle with the lesson Pi’s father tried teaching him early in the film: Animals don’t have souls. When the iconic Bengal tiger, Richard Parker, ends his companionship with Pi by walking into the forest without so much as a backward glance, Pi is devastated. The scene suggests that maybe Pi’s father was right, after all, but on closer inspection things get more ambiguous (as seems to be the case for many of the film’s key moments). Perhaps animals just value things differently than people — animals might be far keener on looking forward than on looking back.
I had expected to like Yann Martel’s book, which won the 2002 Man Booker Prize. I was told by almost everyone who had read it that I would like it. So I read the novel with great suspicion. I think I did like the book, though it was not quite as poetically brooding as I’d hoped. (At that time, I was drawn to vaguely philosophical, melancholic books with lush imagery.) I couldn’t quite get off that lifeboat, replete with dry biscuits and a quaint survival manual for those adrift at sea, for a few days. Somehow I was less intrigued by the extent to which Pi’s lengthy stay (on a lifeboat with starving animals) could be possible than by how a dry biscuit might actually look, or how a young boy could have such a serendipitous succession of religious awakenings.
In the same way, I suppose I did like the film. Some critics have suggested that Life of Pi is no more than Lee’s excuse for a glorious visual spectacle that masquerades as introspection. A related charge is that Lee’s film oversentimentalizes religion. I could not disagree more (though I suspect that Eat, Pray, Love is guilty of the second charge). Lee’s film is certainly very beautiful, and there’s an appropriately surreal air about most scenes, from the sun-drenched Indian swimming pool in which Pi learns to swim to the verdant self-cannibalizing island. For the most part, I think the fantastical, overwhelming imagery is fitting for a film that treads so finely between the real and the unreal. Everything is heightened, as things tends to be in hindsight.
Early on in the film, we’re told that Pi’s story “will make you believe in God.” That’s a very ambitious statement. I won’t go as far as to say that the film actually makes an overwhelmingly compelling case for the existence of God, but it does say a few things worth thinking about. While Pi admits that being hungry does strange things to you, he doesn’t descend into the depths of of savagery in a Lord of the Flies or Heart of Darkness fashion. Perhaps this has something to do with the absence of other people competing for starkly inadequate resources. Or perhaps it has to do with Pi’s reliance on religious philosophy. Throughout the film, he is periodically depicted praying on the boat, and during a particularly brutal storm he cries out to his creator, declaring his readiness to be taken home. The scene exemplifies an ancient notion in at least one of Pi’s many religions — God gives and then takes away. What do you do when that happens?
The film is most remarkable for the two questions that it poses. After Pi completes his astonishing account, he asks Martel, “Why does it have to mean anything?” After Pi is rescued, he is interviewed by representatives of the Japanese shipbuilding company that constructed the sunken boat. When Pi’s interviewers admit that his story is difficult to believe, he says, “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?” I think these are great statements on religion that steer clear from sentimentality. Too often, we try too hard to fit our lives into some kind of narrative (which is exactly what Martel tries to do with Pi’s story), and sometimes we choose a certain belief that helps explain the seemingly disparate fragments of our lives. But we also are more averse to accepting things that defy our accepted ways of viewing the world; just because something is hard to believe doesn’t mean it’s unbelievable. That Lee managed to convey these salient questions, which I think constitute the core of the book, makes his win a deserving one.