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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
No Frigate Like a Book
by Donald Levit

Less than twelve hours later, the 2012 New York Film Festival Opening Night world première of Life of Pi would red-carpet the four who had answered questions following the morning press screening. Un-Hollywoodish double Oscar-winning director/co-producer Ang Lee; Fox’s production head Elizabeth Gabler, who acquired rights ten years ago; New Delhi neophyte star Suraj Sharma; and the Booker Prize best-selling novel’s author Yann Martel.

Even with two weeks’ film polishing left to go, Lee had introduced “the incredible story” with a twinkle, “never make a movie with kids, animals and water, and in 3D.” The hundred-twenty-six-minute result, however, is adventure, overlaid with philosophy, of the best cinema order, rewarding the Canadian author’s several years’ research and writing and the even more time put into getting the David Magee script to the screen.

Influenced by a stay in India and its “abundance of religious expression, not in the forms but how it is lived,” the philosophy-major novelist included three religions and a tad of a fourth for their shared core belief in an immaterial Something. Conceived from the start as the director’s first 3D venture, with a 2D version also to be available, Pi is among the rare ones that integrate the expensive process instead of simply showing off or scaring. In Avatar, horizontal foreground underscored the exquisite flora and fauna of Pandora; Lee’s Pacific is given a vertical view up- and down-wards of sky/heaven above, surface in between, and transparent water below, and their inhabitants and intruders.

The director emphasized the centrality of an easily overlooked early scene. In the presence of mother Gita and brother Ravi (Tabu, Ayaan Khan), Piscine “Pi” Militor Patel (Gautam Belur) is forced by zoo-owner father Santosh (Adil Hussain) to watch the Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker maul a live goat to drag the carcass away to eat. The graphic lesson is that, however beautiful, the feline “is not your friend” or rational and that the flame in its eyes is merely a reflection of the human soul in the onlooker.

This episode -- and other, sometimes humorous, ones of youth -- and indeed nearly all the film, is set within a frame, a fearful symmetry easy to forget and thus occasionally brought back in. An aspiring writer (Rafe Spall), perhaps a Martel, looks up the mature married-with-children Pi (Irrfan Khan), having been told that this Montreal resident’s story is the stuff of a book.

The interior tale narrated by late thirtyish adult Pi continues. Several years after the tiger-goat incident, the whole family leaves French India to embark for Canada, the zoo animals tranquilized aboard the Japanese cargo ship and to be sold to bankroll a new start. Over the Mariana Trench a superbly realized monster storm sinks the freighter. Only Pi (now Sharma) lives to tell the tale, in a lifeboat bearing a zebra with broken legs, an orangutan, and a hyena fierce to satisfy instinct and hunger. The tiger swims by and makes itself master sole inhabitant of the boat, Pi reduced to trailing along on a makeshift raft.

The teenager is dual, like Man. He is rational, scientific, as the transcendental Greek-letter symbol for his shortened name indicates and which he employs to gain respect when children make teasing obscenities of his full given name. That name, French for “swimming pool,” as well allies him with water, with the natural physical being, and his lifelong swimming skill more than once saves him.

Combining intelligence and instinct, he grows strong learning to coexist with the tiger that would devour him, not a friend but a more than companion for two hundred twenty-seven days of drifting. Boredom alternates with adventure -- storms, breaching whales, swarms of flying or predator fish, weird life and phosphorescent water, a floating cannibalistic mangrove island -- as despair alternates with hope, God seems absent yet the spirit continues to struggle.

Marine insurance investigators will need “the truth” instead of this adolescent dream, so Pi is to give them a hurried account to suit their “reality.” The urbane adult Pi also furnishes both versions to the outsetting writer, just as Martel offers them to the reader and Lee to the moviegoer. “They’re both yours now. Which do you prefer?”

(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated "PG" by  MPAA.)

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