Film Review — Life of Pi

Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain fame) is a movie that may strike Christian audiences in a somewhat peculiar way. On a broad-strokes level, the film is deeply spiritual. But upon closer examination, it seems to be somewhat of a spiritual hodge-podge—one of those Oprah-esque, "all religions lead to God," types of stories.

The lead character, Pi Patel, is born a Hindu in India, yet expresses interests in both Christianity and Islam, eventually coming to follow all three in some form or another. It's not exactly the type of message that we as Christians readily embrace, and for good reasons—we know that believing in all things at once is simply not viable.

Disclaimers: Though there's nothing in Life of Pi in terms of inappropriate sexual content, and only very mild language issues, I still don't recommend that you take your children to see this film. Many scenes, though beautiful cinematically, are quite startling. Also, there's a fair amount of animal-related violence, which young children may find especially frightening. It seems to be a fairly accurate representation of nature, and sometimes nature isn't all that "kid-friendly."

And, as mentioned before, the spirituality in the film can perhaps best be described as pandering, giving equal playing time to Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, something that will strike some as offensive given their Christian inclinations.

Technical notes: Based on the book of the same name by Canadian author Yann Martel, Life of Pi is fairly faithful to the source material.The film is a stunning visually, playing more like a colourful picture book than most conventional films, and that alone is enough to inspire awe at the technical prowess present here. If you're a fan of all things visually beautiful—see this movie.

Emotionally, the story is captivating. I found myself very much involved in the film's mood throughout, at times feeling fearful for what Richard Parker's next move would be, and yet oddly sympathetic when the vicious feline was himself faced with impending danger.

Deeper meanings and greater gleanings: If you're unfamiliar with the story of Life of Pi, the movie details the survival story of a boy from India (Pi Patel) who is cast away at sea following a shipwreck. His sunken vessel contains a number of exotic animals from his father's zoo in India, four of which (a zebra with a broken leg, an orangutan named Orange Juice, a hungry hyena, and a fierce Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker) wind up on the only surviving lifeboat. The zebra, orangutan and hyena's stay is short-lived, so much of the movie details Pi's cohabitation of the floating vessel with only Richard Parker to keep him company. Throughout the journey, Pi is touched spiritually through various experiences—giving him a story he claims will "make you believe in God."

It's not really a spoiler to say that Pi survives his incredible eight-month journey at sea. The main narrative of the film is depicted early on as a flashback, signifying that Pi has lived to tell his tale, namely to a young writer looking to make his story into a book.

After Pi is rescued, two insurance agents pay him a visit in the hospital, looking for answers as to why their ship sunk mysteriously into the Pacific Ocean. Though Pi has no explanation, he recounts his incredible tale of surviving the ocean waters with a fearsome tiger as his only companion.

Though fascinated by his story, the agents find it unbelievable, and ask "what really happened?" Pi gives them a less fantastic, but still detailed story, in which people from the ship's passengers and crew replace the animals in some form or another.

SPOILER ALERT: At the end of the flashback, Pi asks the young writer which version he prefers. He answers, "The one with the tiger." Pi responds, "And so it is with God."

If it all seems a little muddled, you're right in thinking so. It's somewhat troubling to consider God's existence as nothing more than a personal preference—typically we as westerners want something a little more concrete than that. It's unsettling to think that God is only real if we want Him to be.

And so for Christian audiences, Life of Pi seems a little too "loosey-goosey" to be taken all that seriously. For the already-Christian filmgoer, the film doesn't say much in terms of solid biblical truths or compelling reasons for belief. It's a nice story, a pretty story—but it's not true enough for us to take seriously.

But for those unfamiliar with religion or spirituality, Life of Pi might be a good starting point for deeper conversations. As people who have been Christians for a long time, we often forget our humble spiritual beginnings and are quick to dismiss the elementary-level spiritual truths that feature throughout Life of Pi. And we often forget that we're all called to Evangelize to those who don't yet know God.

And to some extent, the spiritual truths that we hold on to are always of an emotional nature, which seems to be at the heart of what this film is trying to express. The truth that we Christians have in Jesus matters to us—it shapes who we are and it gives us hope for what lies ahead, despite the perilous circumstances we find ourselves in, much like the hope Pi retains throughout his experience. It feels good to know that.

It's easy to get to the end of the film and cynically say, "So it doesn't really matter what actually happened, it's all a matter of preference." But while both of Pi's stories are believable, one is a good deal more hopeful and optimistic than the other.

The story without the tiger could have happened, but to believe in it is far more bleak and lonely than the one with Richard Parker at his side. Pi owes his life to Richard Parker in many ways, and there's great truth in the belief that Pi, like all of us, can't do it himself.

To conclude, Life of Pi is a good introduction to the emotional aspect of spirituality, but it shouldn't be the "be-all-end-all" textbook on the subject. It's a good primer course and conversation starter (especially for the spiritually unfamiliar) but it shouldn't be taken as the definitive film for the faithful.

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About the author

Rob Horsley is the former Managing Editor of ChristianWeek.