By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Tiger, Tiger burning bright. In the movies of the night.
Whose mortal hand and eye framed thy fearful symmetry?
I can tell you who: A cinematic master named Ang Lee who has opened up the possibilities of film in ways James Cameron never dreamed of.
This seems to be the year for the “unfilmmable” book. First “Cloud Atlas;” now “The Life of Pi” which takes place almost entirely on a small lifeboat shared by a very lean 16-year-old Indian boy named Pi (Suraj Sharma) and a very large Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker (It’s…complicated).
On the most basic level, “Pi” could be described as “We Bought a Zoo” meets “Castaway.” Except, of course, Wilson the soccer ball didn’t have teeth.
The film is framed as a tale told, by a 40-ish Pi (Irrfan Khan) to a young Canadian writer (Rafe Spall). So we know from the beginning the boy, at least, will survive this perilous journey. That taken care of, Lee — as did Yann Martel in his prize-winning book — is free to deal with events as events, things as they happen, without us being preoccupied with our hero’s survival.
Lee cannily establishes the picture’s early Jungle-Book ambiance. Pi’s father runs a zoo in India; the residents, i.e., the animals, are introduced in a credit sequence, that’s simultaneously Rudyard Kipling wondrous and Jack-Hannah cute.
However, lest any of us be tempted to go all PETA on, say, Richard Parker, Lee brutally reminds us of the laws of nature. A trembling goat is placed in the tiger’s cage and young Pi witnesses first hand survival of the fittest. (It’s not the goat, and I sooooo hid my eyes during this).
The family decides to move to Canada, animals and all, aboard a Japanese tanker (apparently they’ve never seen “The Black Stallion”). Tragedy strikes, the ship goes down, and the only survivors — all sharing the same tiny lifeboat — are Pi, Richard Parker, an injured zebra, a motherly orangutan and a vicious hyena. Once again, only the fittest survive, and nature takes its course. I chose to duck under the seat and scribble, “I hate this movie” over and over in my notes.
And I did. For those agonizing few minutes.
However, once the survivors are down to two, “Pi” becomes a more than the story of who eats whom. It becomes a metaphorical voyage into the meaning of life, faith and religion. For God, it seems, — or some sort of higher power — has as much of a hand in what happens to Pi during his 227 days at sea as He did in framing the fearful symmetry of William Blake’s Tyger.
To understand “The Life of Pi” — to fully absorb its meaning — it is imperative you stay with it until the very end. Because it’s only within the last few minutes, when the boy is being interviewed by, of all things, an insurance investigator tying up loose ends on his company’s sunken ship, that the film gives up its secrets.
Lee uses 3-D in a manner that even Martin Scorses’s “Hugo” can’t match.
“Pi” is a phantasm of magic surrealism; at one point, a whale breaks the surface as if it were a creature from an alien world. The ocean brims with mysteries only guessed at, while the night sky and its twinkling stars promise potential miracles.
Part of the amazement “The Life of Pi” engenders is its effortless mingling of the sacred and the profane.
Hospitable-seeming islands that can be as deadly as roiling oceans; these are profane. So is a broken zebra awaiting an unlovely fate. Or a teenage boy who survives his family’s doom for the silliest (read, unfair) of reasons. But there is the sacred, too, and that confronts us, spell-binding and clear-eyed, as the movie ends.
Richard Parker has been Pi’s greatest adversary. And yet, he has kept the boy alive, through fear of his savage nature as well as humans’ ever-surprising need for companionship and explanation. The tiger is both bane and savior, as fierce and inexplicable as the Old Testament Lord to whom Blake ascribed his Tyger’s origin.
Tiger or Tyger, he is as necessary as death. And as transcendent as faith.