"This story will make you believe in God,” says the title character in Life of Pi, the visually ravishing adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 bestseller. Apparently, Barack Obama himself thought the same thing of the novel: “an elegant proof of God,” the president called it in a note to Martel.
Pi, an Indian teenager trapped on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger, is a Hindu-Catholic who, later in life, ends up teaching a course in Kabbalah in Toronto. In other words, he may be the perfect fictional representation of our president: born in a historically pagan and partly Shinto American state, educated briefly at an Indonesian school, brought to maturity in the pews of Jeremiah “God damn America” Wright’s South Side church, and recipient of 70 percent of the Jewish vote.
What the survival story in Life of Pi has to do with God, or how it proves the existence of God, is something only a scriptural scholar of Reverend Wright’s standing could explain. In the movie, Pi talks a lot about God, and he sees many beautiful things as he engages in the active process of surviving a calamity while keeping a savage animal at bay. But the connection of the proceedings to the Creator of All Things is rather elusive, except for the fact that all things are connected to the Creator of All Things—in which case you don’t need to be shipwrecked to discover that.
I haven’t read the novel, but judging from what I gather is a very faithful cinematic rendition of its guiding philosophy, I must thank my own personal Vishnu-Christ for sparing me the torture. I see no need to submit myself willingly to belletristic hermeneutics again (I went through my Hermann Hesse phase 40 years ago) until my own small children compel me to engage with them on the “Why do bad things happen if there is a God?” question.
If this were all there was to the movie version of Life of Pi, I would tell you to run like hell in the other direction. But you shouldn’t. Life of Pi is just too stunning to look at, and too beautifully executed in almost every way, to be avoided. I hate to resort to cliché, but Life of Pi is a rare visual feast. If you are a lover of cinema, this is a movie you must see, and in 3D. Every so often a film sets a new aesthetic standard for the art form—I can think of Lawrence of Arabia in the 1960s and The Conformist and Days of Heaven in the 1970s—and that is what the magnificently talented director Ang Lee has achieved here. The integration of glorious music, staggering photography, peerless special effects, profoundly moving acting, and that rare use of the 3D process which actually justifies the annoyance of wearing the glasses mark Life of Pi as a signature cinematic accomplishment.
The depiction of Pi’s 1970s childhood in the southern Indian state of Pondicherry—where his family runs a zoo—is no less dazzling than the wholesale creation-by-CGI of a tiger with the overly cute name of Richard Parker. And these are matched in their depth and brilliance by the narration of Irrfan Khan, a middle-aged Indian actor who portrays the older Pi. What Khan pulls off here with a raised eyebrow and a slight smile and a quickly suppressed sob supplies the movie with the beating heart most special-effects extravaganzas simply do not have.
Life of Pi has its longueurs. Pi, we are told, spends more than 200 days at sea. There are a couple of moments—especially when Lee and screenwriter David Magee want to show the extreme boredom and loneliness to which Pi has been subjected—when you begin to feel like you’ve spent 200 days at sea, too. I don’t think they wanted to depict the cost of tedium by making their movie tedious, but that is what happens.
Despite that, and despite its oh-wow whatever-you-believe-is-true-and-good deism, Life of Pi is, at its best, a work of wonder. And works of wonder don’t come along all that often, so you should really give it a shot.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.