“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.

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