“Life of Pi”: A Bittersweet Symphony of Survival, Syncretism, and Surrender

Suraj Sharma, Life of Pi

Pi the spiritual drifter.

When your main character is a self-described “Catholic Muslim Hindu” who teaches about Kabbalah at the local university in his adult years, you know a discussion group will be unavoidable after the movie.

Ang Lee’s most recent adaptation of a novel I haven’t read, Life of Pi, pops with visuals that dazzle and astonish even without the 3-D upcharge, but many viewers who’ve already chosen their walk in life may be less enthusiastic about the film’s broad presentation of its spiritual themes. Since childhood, our young hero Pi has never adopted a religion he didn’t like. He doesn’t favor any one particular faith over another, instead enjoying the wide latitude of the “Everyone’s right, everyone wins!” pluralistic approach to religion that assumes anyone short of Hitler will be in Heaven if everyone’s excellent to each other, and God is merely an elderly greeter at the gates, waving politely and passing out “Participant” ribbons. As long as a belief system mentions God and endorses unlimited happiness for one and all, it’s on the “nice” list.

Unfortunately for Pi, other characters struggle to accept his lifestyle choice, particularly his pro-science dad, who lectures Pi on behalf of Hollywood’s God-hating half about the merits of siding with Reason as if it’s an option mutually exclusive from religion altogether. In the film’s framing scenes, an older Pi (Irrfan Khan, last seen Stateside as a lackey in Amazing Spider-Man) tells his incredible tale to an earnest skeptic with writer’s block (Rafe Spall, last seen dying stupidly in Prometheus). Beyond these token nods to nonpartisan balance, Pi is otherwise a passionate, stubborn, welcome argument for choosing theism over atheism. In limiting the debate and the viewing experience to that simple baseline context, I was on board and enthralled to that extent.

Childhood presents other, non-denominational strife for li’l Pi, too. His unusual name invites teasing and bullying from immature classmates. His other family members don’t quite understand his never-ending vision quest. His kindly, naive attitude toward his father’s zoo animals nearly sees him turned into lunch for a tiger called Richard Parker (so named due to amusing clerical error). Worse still, economic circumstances force the family to depart India and sail for Canada in hopes of a new, solvent life. Worst of all, a devastating shipwreck leaves Pi afloat at sea in a lifeboat with a tiny population of survivors that dwindle rapidly to just himself and the talented Mr. Parker. If ever there were a time for divine assistance from a God, any one of the 200+ days spent by the disparate duo at sea would do.

What could have been adapted into a skin-deep film filed heedlessly with Lifeboat, Cast Away, and Open Water under the waterborne-suspense subgenre instead becomes an epic journey of raging tempests, unhelpful passing ships, self-inflicted slapstick, improvised tiger-taming, suspicious islands, journal-writing, tally-mark scratching, and more prepacked survival supplies than we’re used to seeing in such a film. While Pi struggles in his relationships with both God and his carnivorous companion, the ocean setting is a feast of scintillating compositions and future desktop wallpaper opportunities. My personal favorite part in terms of visuals would be the deceptively benign scene in which the watercraft cruises amidst a school of what appears to be every bioluminescent creature on Earth gathered together for an elegant glow-in-the-dark convention that brightens an already starry night and belies more danger ahead.

My favorite scene of all comes later in the film, after a string of misfortunes has left Pi and Parker at Job-level rock bottom, with danger looming large and their plight about to end them both. In a lesser tale, Pi would denounce God, pull himself up by imaginary bootstraps, and somehow save the day merely by tapping into the unstoppable awesomeness that we’re often told can be invoked like a superpower by every single human if only they reach down deeply enough and properly idolize themselves from within. Quite the contrary, Pi — either taking the easy way out or convicting himself for the much harder path, depending on your interpretation — throws up his arms and surrenders his will and his life to God. Not until after that moment of decision does Pi slowly begin to head in a better direction and a greater understanding of his life.

That scene alone, I think, can make or break one’s final opinion of the movie. I see where Pi is coming from and recognize the enviable level of unconditional love that such a response would require in the face of tremendous chaos. On the other hand, less forgiving viewers may see him as a whiny quitter and wish for Parker to win the movie without him. The ultimate takeaway from this odyssey, viewed from his successful adulthood, is that none of the many blessings in his life would have been possible if it hadn’t been for all the obstacles in his way, and for the combination of preparations and interventions that led him through them.

I would imagine unbelievers having no trouble dismissing the notion as staggering pure luck. So Pi survived because all of these events happened neatly in a row? Good for him! Sometimes people have it easy that way. For any extreme situation in which a beneficial impossibility occurs against all humanly imaginable probability because the necessary myriad factors transpire in exactly the correct sequence, the easiest way to write it all off is to cite Dr. Manhattan’s speech about “thermodynamic miracles” from Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which posits that billion-to-one random happy accidents are a beauty unto themselves. Thus no further contemplation of Life, the Universe, and Everything is necessary.

I vaguely recall reading similar dismissals years ago of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, another movie in which God is proven to a doubting Thomas through a necessary chain of improbable events. One review (I wish I could recall whose) argued that the film was contrived claptrap because, of course everything happened in that film for a reason — the screenwriter made it happen that way.

As I’ve found repeatedly in my own life, so it is with God.

3 responses

  1. Excellent observations. Any movie that prompts viewers to consider he reality of a personal God can put people on the path to seeking and perhaps finding the way, the truth, and the life.

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    • That would be my hope. For some folks, the walk really has to be taken one step at a time, but first you have to assure them there is a path in front of them. I’ve known far too many people who simply sat down and quit…

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      • Sometimes they quit because they latch onto their own strength, not reaching out for His. They may not be broken enough. They may give up but God hasn’t given up on them. He will pursue. When they find the path they may find it narrow but it is the greatest to be on.

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