Thursday, 3 January 2013

Film Review: Life of Pi

In UK cinemas at the moment, Life of Pi is being overshadowed by The Hobbit; but it was Life of Pi that Zero and I went to see at the weekend.

It is a wonderfully complex film, something that is not necessarily being appreciated. The review in the MailOnline stays at the level of the utterly superficial:
Life Of Pi must be the most beautiful film of the year, a technical marvel, and magic realism at its most magical.
A more informative review can be found at the TotalFilm site. Bridges and Tangents reviews it here, commenting on the element of syncretism contained in its more thoughtful moments, more of which below.

If the review at TotalFilm is correct, the film is quite faithful to the original book; I have not, however, read the book and so my comments are really just about the Life of Pi as a film phenomenon. Like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Life of Pi is a film that brings a culture of film  rooted in the Indian sub-continent (I do not think it can be identified as "bollywood" as such) into the mainstream of UK cinema. The cast list suggests that it does this in a more thorough way than does Best Exotic, which retained some well known English names for leading roles. This appears to me to be an essential element of understanding the film and, presumably, the book on which it is based. It is very easy to identify an idea of "spirituality" in the film, but a spirituality that is not identifiable with any one religion rather than another; and, indeed, one can also see an attempt to read the idea of "truth" in a very spiritualised way. And finally, it is easy to gain an advance impression because of the role of animals, and in particular a tiger, that this is a film suitable for children (it has a PG rating). It is not suitable for children - some of the scenes at sea are quite frightening and, from a religious point of view, the film is way too sophisticated for children.

If one recognises a profoundly Indian/Asian culture against which the film is set, then a profound religious theme emerges. That culture is essentially Hindu in its religious character though, as the film shows at points, there is within it a presence of Christianity, Islam and European rationalism. Hinduism is, as Pope Benedict points out in his book Truth and Tolerance, less a single religion than a collective name that embraces a wide range of different religious beliefs and practices. This intrinsic pluralism combines with an intense sense of fable - and I mean that in a positive sense - with the stories of the lives of the different gods. Hinduism has a strength in its sense of a duty towards a universal moral law that reaches across its pluralism.

I think this perspective is key to understanding the religious views of Pi as they are portrayed in the early part of the film. A key scene here is the meal time conversation between Pi and his father. Pi is criticised for trying to believe many different things all at the same time, for trying to be a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian all at the same time. His father's argument is interesting and represents another of the components of the cultural background of the film. It is an appeal to reason, citing the rationale of European medicine as being what cured a relative rather than religion. It is un-reasonable to believe different things all at the same time; science is what matters to us, not religion. To a certain extent, his argument with regard to reason is one that Pope Benedict would also offer. To the Western mind watching this scene, Pi's final comment - "I want to be baptised" - sounds like the punch line to a scene that is constructed as a joke. But in the context of a Hindu religious culture, Pi's response is quite natural, and its significance seen within such a culture is quite different, representing rather less the rejection of reason in favour of religion .

I think the MailOnline does the film a dis-service by referring to it as "magical realism" without recognising that that "magical realism", seen against a background of Hinduism's sense of fable, is quite religious in its content. Pi and the tiger fed by flying fish, a floating island whose plants exude a carnivorous acid at night and a miraculous survival of storms at sea - all of this has a different significance if perceived as a religious fable rather than just a magic story.

From his hospital bed, Pi tells a rather different and less attractive story to investigators of the ship wreck that saw him and the tiger cast on to the sea in a lifeboat. Are the animals of the main story analogues of the personalities of this second story? But the question that Pi asks his interlocutor is not "Which story do you think is true?", the question that would be expected by a Western epistemology. It is instead, "Which story do you prefer?", a question which sits more comfortably with a Hindu/Asian religious culture.

The problem, of course, is that, when the film is shown in a UK cinema, most of a typical audience will have very little religious sense and certainly not the familiarity with a specific type of Asian religious culture that enables the more complex religious theme to be understood. What view of religious belief does the film convey to that type of audience? As Bridges and Tangents observed, it will be a syncretistic view - one can be a Muslim and Christian at the same time, or, at least, it does not matter if you are one rather than the other since they represent ways to the same God. One cannot underestimate the attractiveness to the modern sensibility of such a view of religions and, as Pope Benedict again indicates in Truth and Tolerance (pp.24-25), it is a one-time President of India whose writings present one of the most persuasive arguments for such a "spiritualised" view of religion, a view that is "spiritualised" because it believes but does not concretely adhere to any one among the religions. The challenge to religion offered by reason in the meal time conversation early in the film, and the irrational question about preferring one story rather than another, might also leave the viewer with a sense of opposition between religious belief and reason.

All of this having been said, it is a very beautifully made film. The effects for the scenes in the lifeboat at sea are outstanding - but the storm scenes much to frightening for children. The meerkats on the floating island contribute a moment of humour perhaps not originally intended. The title sequence at the start of the film, showing the various animals in the zoo, is quite stunning. I feel for anyone named in the credits - there is just so much to watch on screen that they are almost over before you realise that there are names on screen as well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Zero says
It really is a beautiful film-get away from your computers and go and see it!