The unorthodox approach to religion in ‘Life of Pi’ may reflect a new orthodoxy
On the opening night of the 50th New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, director Ang Lee announced that his new film, Life of Pi, was “a story about faith” — a subject he reckoned was discussed too little in modern movies. Life of Pi is an adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel — the sort of book that does not attract admirers so much as converts. Lee’s film begins with an author, presumably intended to be Martel (played by Rafe Spall), seeking out the middle-aged “Pi” Patel (Irrfan Khan) in Montreal, having been told that Patel is in possession of a story that will “make you believe in God”.
The film that follows consists of three sections. In the first, we see Patel’s boyhood in Puducherry, which is marked by his eclectic, dilettante interest in whatever religion he can get his hands on, drawn in turn to the Hindu, Christian and Muslim sects in his hometown. The second section — and certainly the one bound to attract the most attention, due to its spectacular imagery and consuming immediacy — sees Pi’s heretofore-abstract faith tested by an ordeal, as he spends 227 days lost at sea on a life raft, with only a hungry Bengal tiger named Richard Parker for company, bearing witness to natural miracles that ordinary men will never see, visualised in extravagant 3D computer generated imagery. In the film’s last section, Patel recalls the incredulity with which the admittedly implausible story he’s just finished telling was greeted after he was eventually rescued. He then recounts an alternate version of his ordeal at sea, a story that’s grisly where the first was noble, ugly where the first was sublime. A listener’s choice to believe the first over the second, suggests Patel, is the quintessence of faith.
“Are you directed by the flat edicts of reality, or open to more marvellous possibilities?” is how Martel rephrases the choice Pi offers. In Martel’s defence of faith as the better story, we come very close to the defence of Christianity on aesthetic grounds professed by Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited: “‘But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all. I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.’ ‘Oh yes. I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.’ ‘But