Saturday, 23 February 2013

Life of Pi, dir. Ang Lee, scr. David Magee, based on Life of Pi by Yann Martel, st. Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Rafe Spall, Gerard Depardieu

We tend to gravitate towards things that affirm our own beliefs and, not necessarily reject per se, but certainly disregard those things that confront or question them. That's just human nature. But it is interesting to note that as open as receptive as we try to be when watching films, it is sometimes difficult to engage with certain genres or thematic material that don't mesh with our core beliefs, our bedrock inspirations, those things that inherently make us tick. As a fierce athiest, Life of Pi should have been troubling in its predominent theme of religious absolution and communion, but I can honestly say that it's been a long time since I have been quite so moved by a piece of cinema.

Yann Martel's supremely visual though "unfilmable" novel went through M. Night Shyamalan, and then Alfonso Cuarón and Jean Pierre-Jeunet before it was inherited by Ang Lee. The story concerns a young Indian boy - Piscine Molitor Patel - a kid so predictably teased for his first name that he learns several blackboards' worth of π decimal places to cement his new abbreviation amongst his peers. After running a successful Zoo his family decide to emigrate to Canada - taking their precious animals as carry-on on a large Japanese freighter. When the ship goes down during a storm, Pi is left marooned on the immense, unending sea with only a handful of rescued animals for company. The mere idea of the large bulk of a movie revolving around a boy and a Bengal tiger sharing a lifeboat on a horizonless ocean would be enough to send studio execs and movie-goers alike into an immediate state of preemptive deep-vein thrombosis. However, as Martin Campbell so masterfully demonstrated in Casino Royale in 2006, even the simplest, seemingly actionless set-piece (in the case of Bond - a card game), filled with handsome, painterly set design, flagons of detailed character development, and a broad canvas of conjoined emotional beats, can trump any hyper-kinetic car-on-car explosionfest.

It's not a perfect film; Lee still insists on Hulk-like comic-book partial-dissolves and transitions from one scene to the next, which I'm sure were put in to help cohere the mise en abyme of Rafe Spall's real-world writer interviewing the adult Pi, with the more fantastical elements of Pi's story, but whilst so much of the extensive CGI was exquisitely rendered - Tarsem-style - the swipes and cutaways looked flat and uninspired in comparison.

So what does it all mean? As Apple have proved: Simplicity is beauty. For in Life of Pi, a film that deals with so many ideas about family, faith, fate, companionship, fear, guilt and love, there's a great many avenues that go unexplored, and therein lies the film's greatest potency. Far from resorting to answerless, question-posing vagaries, the film acknowledges the vastness of its own ambitions, addressed directly towards the film's end. When the freighter's insurers arrive to discuss the nature of the tragedy, they simply do not believe Pi's story. Upon offering them a more 'plausible' alternative, they're not sure about that one either. It's not important how we find peace, the film seems to ask. The important thing is that we do. 

Ang Lee's back catalogue continues to astound with the sheer breadth of style and content in his helming choices. For what could have been a possible career-breaker, Lee has taken Martel's novel - a quixotic story about redemption and a big cat named Richard Parker - and turned it into not only an early contender for the best film of 2013, but one of the most important films of the last ten years.