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The divinity of spectacle: on religion and Life of Pi

Beyond the pretty postcards, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi presents a compelling discussion about faith and religion.

Life of PI

It must have been quite a spectacle on the big screen in 1956: Charlton Heston, staff in hand, eyes blazing above a god-like beard, splitting the Red Sea. But for left-leaning Hollywood, religion has never really been a cool factor in popular movies.

Occasionally tinsel town presents religion in the guise of an exotic brochure (for example, Martin Scorcese’s Kundun), but more commonly as a means to ruffle feathers. The Last Temptation of Christ (another Scorsese film, 1988) and Kevin Smith’s Dogma (1999) are good examples of studio filmmaking as epic Catholic troll bait; both, on those terms, can’t be considered as anything less than bona fide success stories.

But a big budget movie that engages with religion in broad strokes — exploring “serious” talking points of faith, belief, omnipotence, the power of parable, nature versus creation etc — is a rarity.

Studio executives must scoff at the idea of bringing anything resembling a sermon to the multiplex. It sounds like a sure-fire line to scare audiences into staying at home and fiddling with Facebook accounts on a Saturday night, or splurging on the latest Adam Sandler gunk: “Hey folks, wanna see a movie about God?!”

There’s a distinction — in content and frequency — between films that explore religious ideas and films that tell religious stories, but both are rare. The former is rarer. If religion is the opiate for the masses, Hollywood ain’t the dealer.

Enter Life of Pi, the Oscar-nominated box office behemoth from lauded filmmaker Ang Lee, which arrives ensconced in a bubble wrap of eye-watering CGI. There are plenty of reasons to admire it and Lee’s sumptuous production values are first port of call. Even the small number of reviewers who weren’t enchanted wouldn’t have the gall to grouse about how beautiful it looks.

But a critic’s job is to look for something more meaningful than pretty postcards, and the film (like the book on which it was based, though the focus of this essay will remain on Lee’s adaptation) offers plenty to chew on. The way Life of Pi packages religious discussion for mainstream audiences will cement its place in history after the special effects look dated, though those days feel a distant CGI-embossed horizon away.

There is not a trace of condescension in the manner Lee unfolds the story of his eponymous protagonist, a promiscuous follower of religions and self-professed “Catholic hindu” who finds himself stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

The story Pi recounts — described as something that “will make you believe in God” — is an adventure at sea narrative of biblical proportions. A reference to the Good Book arrives: ”Welcome to Pi’s ark,” Pi says to an orangatang when it hops on board, a greeting that ought to provide some indication of the film’s scope and intention.

Given Life of Pi is narrated by the doey-eyed protag as an adult man, sitting down to lunch with a hopeful writer on the hunt for a new project, it’s hardly a surprise he is rescued at the end, and that he credits his rescue to God. What will surprise audiences unfamiliar with the novel is a last minute epilogue that casts different light on the story’s many improbabilities (a boy and a tiger on a small boat, a green carnivorous island populated by meer cats, a human tooth hidden in a piece of fruit…).

When Pi — thin, rakish, and semi-hysterial — is rescued and tended to in hospital, Japanese investigators visit and don’t believe his account of events. Which is to say they don’t believe the story the audience has just sat through, a narrative that bore no indication its internal logic would be questioned. Their cynicism forces viewers to extend the critical parameters with which we contextualise what we’ve seen.

The investigators ask him for another story, something that won’t make them look like idiots. Pi’s subsequent recounting of a contrary version, in which the animals are humans and the carnivorous island doesn’t exist, strips the story of its magic.

Here Life of Pi’s true purpose becomes apparent: to springboard a discussion of Big Questions by means of casting doubt on the reliability of the narrator. From Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) to Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995) and David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), unreliable narrators are nothing new, but this one is different. The film never implicitly tells us whether Pi is lying or confused.

It’s an audacious gambit. Has the audience been Münchausened?

The obvious question, though not necessary the right one, concerns which story is true. Lee doesn’t lock in an answer. To do so would have created a) a devoutly pro-religion film about the power of faith and/or the benevolence of a Higher Power or b) a cynical exercise dismissing believers as little more than susceptible sods with overactive imaginations.

When a food-starved, tiger-befriending, day-tripping narrator tells the audience “I couldn’t tell my night dreams or my day dreams from reality” we ought to have suspected he may not be an infallible source of accuracy. Nevertheless the epilogue surprises.

A more interesting question than if Pi did not tell the truth is: ‘Why?’ We know from development of his character that Pi is a genuine believer  and thus not interested in taking the mickey out of religion, or using his incredible story as a means to hoodwink a writer for the purposes of some kind of perverse pranksterism.

Perhaps the most sensible explanation is that Pi, driven to near madness on a bobbing lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with a giant feline and a diet of raw fish and faux muesli bars, muddled facts. The guy got some things wrong and some things right, and the veracity of his tale lies somewhere between both versions. But suppose he lied. Wouldn’t a story about surviving in his circumstances be enough to champion the existence of God? Why bend the details of something already fantastic?

When people recount stories that combine the deeply personal with the deeply spiritual, words like “logic” and “reason” crumble like dried out cheese. Perhaps Pi, believing in the steering hand of the almighty, couldn’t explain how he survived using something as arbitrary as words — what mystical force in his eyes spared him when his family floated in a giant death trap to the bottom of the ocean. Or maybe, inspired by what he believed was the hand of God, shaped a narrative that could closest represent indescribable emotions.

The conclusion of Life of Pi rewards mostly by its secularism: atheists can read it on their terms, followers of God and agnostics on theirs, if they aren’t entirely lost in the spectacle.

Because a spectacle it is. Flying fish, a phosphorescent whale, underwater hallucinations that turn animals and stars into the face of a beautiful Indian women, weird changes in aspect ratio, glorious wide angles of zoos, animals, lifeboats, shipwrecks and glowing islands shaped like giant moonlit human beings…Ang Lee, a Christian-raised agnostic, may be simply more interested in a different kind of church — the church of cinema.

I took my mother and sister, both practising Christians, to see Life of Pi, and asked them about the ending. My mother linked the story to the tale of Daniel and the Lion’s Den. Me, I thought about Adam and Eve — not so much the story but the unusual way it is regarded by ambassadors for the great man upstairs.

Plenty of Christian parents do not believe in Adam and Eve as an event that actually happened. And yet they share it with children while also teaching the ten commandments — in this case, most pertinently, that one about not lying. The same can be said of the way parents treat Christmas and Santa Claus. I was raised in a relatively orthodox Christian household, where I was encouraged to believe in both Adam and Eve and Santa (one I believed for longer than the other, especially when I noticed Santa’s handwriting was identical to my mother’s). I was also taught that lying is wrong.

Rather than deriding this as a form of double-think or hypocrisy, it’s interesting to think about how lying in terms of actual facts/events can reinforce the liar’s belief in a spiritual truth. Christian parents see the value in teaching faith over tangible properties. They share messages about holding onto things that cannot be touched, held or plausibly re-enacted. Belief in God is central to the spiritual orbit, but capacity to believe in belief is more important, given the first cannot exist without the other. These stories are often used to champion larger values. For example, that being a virtuous person (i.e. nice not naughty) should lead to reward, whether that reward is an extra gift stuffed into the stocking or residence in heaven for eternity.

Life of Pi begins at a time when the reward has already been served. We know the protagonist has transcended incredible hardship. It goes on to show us how he achieved this, then how he might not have achieved it. It builds an interior logic, then ultimately questions it. Interpreting the film as a exploration of faith is, in a sense, an act of faith itself.

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  • 1
    Mark Duffett
    Posted January 25, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Are ‘films that explore religious ideas’ really that rare? Knowing virtually nothing about the story going in, I was surprised how overtly Christian Les Miserables is. Jean Valjean is surely one of the greatest exponents of Christian values and redemptive experience in fiction.

  • 2
    W H Chong
    Posted January 25, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Dear Luke,

    Very good to read something about the “message” of the film, esp with personal feeling (but what did your sis think?). The visuals are undeniably wonderful, and remind us what a graceful, tasteful eye Ang Lee has, from Ice Storm to the landscape sweep of Brokeback Mountain.

    Couple of things: the 3D gave me a headache — maybe it’s a spectacles over spectacles thing? And I went with another agnosticish friend — the bit when the older Pi promises that his story will make you believe in God: didn’t work.

    The God/religion crux — the reason for this whole story/book/film — seems to me very weak. All that stunningly rendered “beauty” palls against the idea of a personal god who would kill my family in a blink, a whole ship of innocent animals and then put me into a lethal situation of dehydration, starvation and being eaten alive, for 200+ days. God’s little experiment: place a pious boy between a hell tiger and heavenly dazzlements.

    No one has ever explained the Old Testament episode of God requiring Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Neither Martel nor Lee have managed to satisfy a non-believer’s requirement for sense, if not sensitivity, from the deity/deities.

    regarding your final remark, I’m sure Ang Lee does want us to see the film as an exploration of faith — from The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman on, it is clear that he is interested in cultural ideas, in trying to reach some understanding of human feeling. Entertainment is evidently not the whole thing for him.

    But the problem with Pi, the film and the character, is exactly the consuming desire for a connection with god; in the famous X-files phrase: “I Want to Believe.” One issue is that there is no uncertainty in the film as we know Pi comes through his ordeal, limbs intact, at the start.

    As for doubt, another problem is that Pi’s belief is glued tight early, from his childhood project of collecting gods and divine superheroes. “What more do you want from me?” Pi cries out at one point, not too late, but maybe too little. What saves Pi, and the film, is the absorbing mechanics of survival. To quell Pi’s and the audience’s doubt and anxiety, god/director hurls gorgeous visions at us.

    As if centuries of murderous conflict between “faiths” did not count, were not suitable for discussion. As if the (Hindu-Muslim) Partition in India never happened. As if Spirituality were an intoxicating fragrance we could all wear; it comes in such ravishing packaging…

    Regards,
    chong

  • 3
    Posted January 25, 2013 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    This comment contains a serious spoiler.

    The Life of Pi is a beautiful, poetic novel and Ang Lee’s film adaptation is as close to perfect an adaptation as they come. It was truly beautiful to watch and I am unashamed to admit I wept like a little girl towards the end. It’s one of the first 3D films I’ve seen where the raw beauty of the film was enhanced by the 3D rather than the 3D being just a distraction.

    As to the treatment of religion in the film, (if you’ve neither read nor seen the film stop here):

    — spoiler follows ——

    Pi makes the point at the end, both in the book and in the film, that the magical version of his ordeal is “the better story.” This is vindicated by the reference to the tiger in the official insurance report; the insurance people, despite insisting on a story that won’t make them look like fools would rather a magical story than one grounded in the reality of murder and cannibalism. But ultimately the story is just a story, both stories are; neither are true, and so, for the audience it makes little sense to debate which is the true story. As a member of the audience, life the insurance agents, we want to believe the more wonderful, more uplifting, more humane story, even if that story is patently nonsense.

    So too with religion. Pi is both devout in his believe but at the same time perfectly happy to accept his beliefs are contradictory. His father makes the point that believing in all of Hinduism (with millions of gods) and also Christianity and Islam is just like not believing in any of them (which is his position.) It’s just not rational to believe in them all he, the rationalist, complains. But for Pi (who later in the film also admits he lectures in Kabbala as well) religion is not about what is true, it’s about what makes the better story, even if those stories are patently nonsense.

  • 4
    mikeb
    Posted January 25, 2013 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    @Dave – pretty much summed up my thoughts. I came away from the movie absolutely certain that the true story was told on the hospital bed, but that story for Pi is too horrible to think about. The fantasy of tigers and flying fish and magical islands is far more wonderful. We would all like to think of a God who makes the unbelievable come true – but the reality is that life has a mix of good and bad – and God, if there is one, does not interfere.

  • 5
    Phil Vee
    Posted January 26, 2013 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Dave and mikeb, I was giving up hope that someone understood this movie and my brain was not wired wrong. The story is just a story, but there is within it a reality of what really happened and an invention. Pi creates the tiger and the other animals as direct equivalents of the humans on the lifeboat. This is crystal clear and no-one can dispute it or argue about it.

    We can’t choose to believe the tiger story or the French cook story because they are both the same, although one has cuddly animals in it and makes us feel good. Choosing to believe that story is like believing in a God that does not exist. We believe it because we want to, it is easier and means we do not have to confront the grubby reality. Understandably Pi does not want to live with the grubby reality so he invents a better one.

    One example. Pi has to eat fish but he can’t because he is a vegetarian. His God is stopping him from eating fish and causing him to die. Pi eats the fish anyway. Then he looks at a fish and says, “Thank you Lord Vishnu, for coming to me in the body of a fish”. Pi is pretending God is in the fish so that he can eat it and survive. It is his way of overriding God.

    Pi is saying we make up nonsense so we can go on in the world. He converted his real life into a cute animal story so he could go on and have children and prosper. And so it goes with God. God is a good story we need to believe in because we prefer it to reality.

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