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The young man and the CGI
Publication Date : 28-11-2012
LIFE OF PI (PG)
The story: Piscine Molitel Patel, better known as Pi, and his family are migrating to Canada on a ship with their zoo when it is sunk in a storm. Pi (Suraj Sharma) is stranded on a lifeboat with remnants of the zoo - namely Richard Parker, the oddly named Bengal tiger, a hyena, an orang utan and a zebra.
Canadian author Yann Martel's 2001 novel of the same title, which won the 2002 Man Booker Prize, is not a natural contender for film adaptation. Heavy on metaphors and literary devices, it is an odd beast for film.
But if anyone could do it, it would be Taiwanese director Lee Ang, who has proven, with previous works such as Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Lust, Caution (2007), to be a careful and scrupulous reader, and more than capable translator, of texts. Certainly, Life Of Pi unwinds with a deliberate, Zen-like pace that draws the viewer gently into the story, despite some potentially heavyweight themes.
It begins with an adult Pi, played with quiet gravity by Irrfan Khan, telling a writer (Rafe Spall) his life story, which begins in French Pondicherry India, where Patel's father (Adil Hussain) starts a zoo.
Pi's idyllic childhood unspools with a touch of the fabulous. Named for a French swimming pool and self-christened with the nickname Pi for the mathematical mystery, his other distinguishing characteristic is his unwavering faith. Born a Hindu, he also adopts Christianity and Islam. His father warns him that "believing in everything is the same as not believing in anything", but Pi persists in his belief that faith is "a house with many rooms", accommodating all gods and faiths.
This, it would seem, introduces more serious themes into the movie. But Lee navigates the waters, both literal and metaphorical, with a light touch. The focus in the first third of the film is on the family drama that builds the audience's investment in the characters. It helps that the cast is uniformly good. Veteran actress Tabu is a wonderful maternal anchor while Hussain matches her for paternal benevolence.
Pi is played at different ages by three actors, but newcomer Suraj Sharma has to carry the maximum load in the middle section, where he is stranded on a lifeboat with CGI animals.
For an untested actor, Sharma delivers a convincingly naturalistic performance despite having to act against a blue screen and a Richard Parker constructed out of pixels.
This CGI tiger is one of the many visual marvels of this ravishingly beautiful film, which has the dreamy atmosphere of a classic fable. This is worth watching in Imax 3-D, where the images pop with the vivid splendour of a child's picturebook. The many breathtaking images by cinematographer Claudio Miranda include an India that is vibrant but not exoticised, a still ocean reflecting the sky, a lifeboat suspended against a reflected sky.
Lee's technical mastery camouflages with visual wonders and controlled narrative an essential gap in Martel's tale. While the book was a great success, its tale was built around a gaping hole. After introducing a character with fathomless faith and testing him with the Old Testament travails of Job, Martel never really explores the impact of these tests on Pi's faith. Pi emerges unscathed, his faith unshaken but the reader is no wiser as to why.
In film, an essentially visual medium, Lee's skills as a storyteller manage to paper over this hole in the heart of the story. But as pretty as the film is, this does not match the heights of his other more heartfelt book adaptations.