'Life of Pi' a dazzling epic about nature, faith

Pi (Suraj Sharma) and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker arrive at an uneasy detente in director Ang Lee's "Life of Pi."
Pi (Suraj Sharma) and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker arrive at an uneasy detente in director Ang Lee's "Life of Pi." (Twentieth Century Fox)
Posted: November 19, 2012

Life of Pi, Yann Martel's best-selling novel about a 16-year-old boy who survives for 227 days in a lifeboat in the Pacific, will make the most cynical skeptic believe in God, boasts one of its more colorful characters.

It's a doozy of a claim, and it gave some pause to filmmaker Ang Lee, whose dazzling, breathtaking $100 million 3-D film version opens on Wednesday.

"I'm not sure it will make you believe in God," the Taiwanese-born American director said in a phone interview. "But the pleasure the book gives comes from [the fact] that it examines the power of storytelling."

Narrated by the precocious castaway, Martel's playfully written book is a paean to the joy of stories, myths, and narratives forming the fabric of human culture - including religion.

"I think as a storyteller and as a receiver [of others' stories] when you pass a story along, life seems to have meaning, because it's been given a structure," Lee, 58, said.

A full-on epic pitting its hero against the power of nature, of history, of myth itself, Life of Pi came to Lee after first being assigned to a string of other directors. Lee spent nearly four years on the film, which some early reviews have dubbed a masterpiece.

It tells the story of Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, a studious, endlessly fascinated teen from Pondicherry in former French India, who alarms his family by adopting Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity all at the same time.

Pi, named after a swimming-pool complex in Paris, becomes shipwrecked after his father, a zoo owner, decides to emigrate to Canada and books passage for his family, and his entire collection of animals, on a Japanese freighter.

The only human survivor, Pi makes it onto a lifeboat with a zebra, a spotted hyena, an orangutan, and Pi's favorite, the giant Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. Before long all the animals kill each other, save for the tiger.

At turns poetic, terrifying, romantic, and comic, Lee's film shows Pi's attempts to build a relationship with Richard Parker that won't include the animal eating him for lunch.

"Pi grew up in a zoo, a paradise, which is a comforting place," Lee said. "And now he's thrown into the ocean and has lost everything - his family, everything."

The contrast, Lee said, gave him an opportunity to explore a wide range of visual techniques.

The visuals would be useless, Lee added, unless he found the right actor to play Pi. Lee cast Suraj Sharma, 17, a student and newcomer to acting, after auditioning more than 3,000 boys. "Once I saw the kid do the scene, I knew," he said.

Viewers may be astonished by Sharma's interaction with the tiger. In one scene, Richard Parker sleeps with his head on Pi's lap. Lee laughed when asked how the filmmakers trained a tiger to manage such feats.

"We have only 23 shots of a real tiger," he said. "The rest is CGI."

Some critics praise Life of Pi as the next big step in the evolution of digital animation after James Cameron's Avatar. Unlike the earlier film, which featured an entirely animated world, Lee's film aims at a seamless, realistic interaction between animated animals and human actors.

Lee said the CGI fooled Indian officials concerned that the production was harming animals. "We had to prove to the Indian government that we weren't drugging the tiger to be calm," he said, "so we showed them the CGI process layer by layer."

During their journey, Pi and Richard Parker encounter a vast array of animals, a symphony of nature that Lee depicts with a broad range of vibrant colors. The duo also withstand several storms of biblical proportions.

"Pi is amazed by the magnificence of nature," Lee said. "It's his first taste of nature outside the zoo and [to him it's a sign] of the power of God."

Martel, who wrote Life of Pi after a spiritual crisis, said he tried to paint a complex, multivalent view of nature, and of faith.

"Nature is a cold, harsh place. Walk into any field and in a sense it's a battleground between one set of insects and another, each trying to survive," Martel said by phone from his home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. We view nature as a symbol of harmony and beauty, yet nature is indifferent to us. Our cares, loves, and concerns mean nothing in the grand scheme of things.

Martel, 49, embarked on Life of Pi in 1996 during an extended stay in southern India. A lifelong atheist, he said he became fascinated with Indian religions, and later Western ones, and injected his interest into the book.

"I became interested in faith, that deeply unreasonable act which has you affirm something that cannot be proven," he said.

Pi grapples with the paradox of faith as he navigates between life and death during his 227-day spiritual trial, Martel said. And his faith never wavers.

How does the novelist rate the film?

"I've seen it four times," Martel said enthusiastically. "Visually it is ravishing. Technically, it is absolutely flawless. . . . It is very faithful to the book."

Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.

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